How do you identify a bot when it’s signing up for an account on Facebook or Twitter? Can you warn people they’re about to interact with it?
Why does the burden of reporting online harassment fall on the victims?
Aremore by censors on Facebook and Twitter?
These are hairy questions that strike at the core of how social media works and, potentially, how the internet will behave in the future.
They’re also some of the questions Congress asked Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Wednesday, without clear answers in return. Between two hearings held over nearly eight hours, lawmakers expressed concerns and raised troubling issues about how tech companies act.
“We’re getting to the next layer down,” said James Norton, a former deputy assistant undersecretary for the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.
The tech industry is entering a new age in which lawmakers aren’t just scrutinizing its missteps but asking questions fundamental to how it works. Their questions target issues like the tech industry’s knack for opaque operations, and they’re far harder for tech CEOs to dismiss with a talking point.
Unlike in the past, Congress avoided cringe-worthy moments of gray-haired senators asking basic questions about how the Internet functions. (In April, Zuckerberg explained how he kept Facebook free: “Senator, we run ads.”) Instead, lawmakers focused many of their questions on issues like data privacy and election interference.
“The key questions are, what do the administration, Congress, the tech industry and the American people need to know and understand about ongoing attacks by foreign governments?” said April Doss, chair of the cybersecurity and privacy practice at Saul Ewing.
Part of the reason for the change is that Congress no longer sees tech as a wholly positive force in society, said Jeffrey Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy.
And it appears Congress isn’t going to let up. Chester, Doss and Norton all said there’s more to come. Lawmakers have already said they plan to schedule more hearings. And they may even subpoena Google in light of its no-show Wednesday.
Still, don’t assume that means actual legislation is coming anytime soon, said Larry Downes, project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy.
“I don’t expect much in the way of legislative action,” he said. “There’s no markup, there are no bills, there’s nothing circulating.”
Instead, lawmakers asked for more information and requested executives to commit to vague ideas, like an “audit by Amnesty International,” which Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette asked Dorsey to do (he agreed to it). New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, meanwhile, asked if Dorsey would commit to an independent third-party civil rights audit (he agreed to that too).
Regardless, the message from Congress was unmistakable.
“The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end,” said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s vice chairman. Congress, he said, is going to have to take action. “Where we go from here is an open question.”
Theater on the sidelines
Congressional hearings are always partly political theater, with one-liners, exhibits and stark images meant to produce good television. So if these hearings were meant to rile up the public, they may have fallen flat.
Some of the most talked-about moments happened in the audience and the hallway. Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist and voice behind the website Infowars, has been a big topic of discussion in Silicon Valley over the last few weeks, as several tech giants banned him from their platforms for violating their community guidelines.
During the Senate hearing, Jones alternated between sitting in the audience, posing for photos and leaving for the hallways. During a short break, he ranted against Facebook and Twitter and got into a heated exchange with Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida.
By comparison, the stuff going on inside was more low-key. By the end of the three-hour Senate hearing on Wednesday, more than half of the seats for the public were empty.
Too little too late?
Congress offered some constructive criticism, as when West Virginia Rep. David McKinley complained about opioid ads that had been posted on Twitter just in the past hour. But it may be too late. A common refrain from both Dorsey and Sandberg was that their companies are moving as fast as they can.
“I know that’s a frustrating answer because it’s hard to predict,” Dorsey acknowledged late in the House committee hearing.
Meanwhile, the issues tech faces are continuing to intensify. In July, Facebook said it discovered a new campaign of “inauthentic behavior” that’s used dozens of Facebook pages and accounts, and $11,000 worth of ads, to promote political causes and potentially interfere in the 2018 US midterm elections. Last month, the company also said it was removing more than 600 “inauthentic” pages, groups and accounts with ties to Russia and Iran.
Twitter followed with a seemingly related disclosure, saying it had suspended 284 accounts with ties to Iran for “coordinated manipulation.” Days later, Google said it was removing 58 accounts tied to Iran from YouTube and other Google services.
Congress on Wednesday commended the tech giants for catching those disinformation campaigns before the elections, rather than being surprised by them after. But some experts say the integrity of the 2018 election is beyond saving.
“In some ways, the United States has broadcast to the world that it doesn’t take these issues seriously,” former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos wrote shortly after leaving the company last month. “While this failure has left the US unprepared to protect the 2018 elections, there is still a chance to defend American democracy in 2020.”
Which means pressure on the tech industry is likely to ramp up once again.
The Honeymoon is Over: Everything you need to know about why tech is under Washington’s microscope.
Infowars and Silicon Valley: Everything you need to know about the tech industry’s free speech debate.