Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have long seen themselves as a new way to connect humanity. But the tech industry has faced turmoil in recent years as companies have grappled with problems ranging from Russian propaganda to complaints of bias against conservatives.
On Tuesday, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey will take a turn in the hot seat as they answer questions from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. In the morning, both will face grilling at a high-profile Senate hearing on social media and foreign influence campaigns. Dorsey will then appear at a House hearing later in the day focused more squarely on his company’s platform.
Google, which has dealt with foreign meddling in phishing attacks and on video platform YouTube, was also invited to send a top executive to appear before the Senate. According to a committee aide, the company failed to offer a representative that the committee found sufficiently senior.
Though Congress has long been loathe to craft legislation that reins in Big Tech, as problems have dogged the powerful industry, talk of regulation has become more widespread in Washington. The Senate forum follows one with security and technology experts in early August, where witnesses raised the alarm about an ongoing “high-stakes information war” and said that the government and private industry need to step up their collective game in order to protect national security.
Wednesday’s hearing, the third on social media that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has hosted, will be a chance for top brass from Facebook and Twitter to show a willingness to work with lawmakers on solutions, in ways that may make legislation seem less necessary or give the industry greater influence in shaping eventual rules. It will also be a chance for lawmakers to prove they’ve got compelling ideas — and to air grievances.
The Hill hearings come at a time when conservatives, including President Donald Trump, have been alleging that their voices are suppressed on social media. Tech companies have denied that claims about political censorship have merit, but questions about the neutrality of platforms will likely arise in the broader contexts of oversight and free speech, as well.
Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who chairs the intelligence committee, invited Google CEO Larry Page to testify. He balked when the company instead offered lawyer Kent Walker, a lower-level executive who works on the issue of foreign influence and has already appeared on Capitol Hill. The committee wants to hear from someone who makes decisions about policy, a committee aide says, not someone who operationalizes it: “As Chairman Burr has stated, if Google’s senior leadership chooses not to be part of the solution to this pressing national security threat, that is their decision to make.”
As recent influence campaigns revealed by Facebook have shown, actors from countries such as Russia haven’t stopped their efforts to meddle in the wake of the 2016 election: they’ve gotten more sophisticated. Facebook and Twitter will likely face tough questions about the ongoing vulnerability of American voters. Yet Senate aides say that the integrity of the upcoming U.S. midterms is just one item on the agenda. Foreign actors in countries such as Iran have been using media to sow discord in ways that ripple beyond election cycles, trying to manipulate sentiment around Palestinian politics, for example.
Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the committee, recently released a white paper outlining several policy ideas for regulating social media, some of which would hold tech companies more responsible for the content on their platforms. There are fears that legislation about what is acceptable on social media could chill free expression. And tech companies have long maintained the position that they are platforms that facilitate the sharing of content, not publishers who are responsible for the billions of posts, videos and documents uploaded by users each day.
But the sense of urgency to protect America’s information ecosystem is weighing more heavily against the desire to give tech companies space to innovate these days. “As their collective influence has grown,” Warner said in his paper, “these tech giants now also deserve increased scrutiny.” Warner has accused tech companies of being caught “flat-footed” in terms of anticipating the ways that their platforms could be exploited by bad actors, and he is likely to test out some of his policy ideas at the hearing.
Facebook’s Sandberg is not expected to endorse any specific legislative proposal. Echoing the line that CEO Mark Zuckerberg took when appearing on Capitol Hill earlier this year, Sandberg will acknowledge that the platform has been too slow to act in the past, a company spokesperson says. In her prepared statement, she will highlight efforts the company is making to take the problem more seriously, such as increasing the number of employees working on security and safety issues to over 20,000 and collaborating more with outside experts.
At the Senate hearing, Twitter’s Dorsey is also expected highlight the company’s efforts to safeguard users, ranging from work that engineers are doing to combat malicious bots to the addition of new “candidate” labels for the official accounts of politicians. In the afternoon, when he appears before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to answer questions about how Twitter’s algorithms work, Dorsey plans to emphasize that the company does not use political ideology to rank content. Even more than other platforms, Twitter has fashioned itself as a bulwark of free expression, a reputation Dorsey will have to defend as he faces questions about alleged practices such as “shadow banning.”
Many lawmakers, particularly Republicans who oppose business regulation on principle, would like for the tech industry to prove that its capable of regulating itself. No one wants to be seen as hampering great engines of the American economy, and Congress is generally playing catchup when it comes to understanding technology, much less making rules about how it should work.
If lawmakers do move to provide more oversight, there is the difficult question of where to start. While some lawmakers want to begin with safeguarding the privacy of users, others believe that sprawling companies like Google present antitrust concerns. As a Washington veteran previously put it to TIME, saying that Congress should regulate the tech industry is as complicated as saying, “Let’s legislate on energy.”
While the hearings may be tough ones for Sandberg and Dorsey, the top executives from Facebook and Twitter will get some credit from lawmakers just for showing up.
Google has not specified why Page is not appearing on the Hill, though a company spokesperson says that the company “understood” Walker would be an appropriate witness based on previous conversations with the Senate committee. In a post, Walker said that the company takes misuse of its platforms seriously and that he will still be in Washington, D.C., this week to answer questions lawmakers may have, even if he won’t be doing it at a formal hearing.
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