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Congress’ Chief Tech Watchdog Is Not Happy With Google
Lexey Swall/The New York Times/Redux
There are plenty of lawmakers who know next to nothing about technology. Senator Mark Warner isn’t one of them. Long before the Virginia Democrat was sworn into the Senate in 2009, Warner built a career in the venture capital and telecom industries. That background has served the senator well since news broke that Facebook, Google, and Twitter all enabled foreign influence campaigns during the 2016 election.
Warner, who acts as vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has driven much of the conversation around what to do with these giants’ unimaginable and unchecked power. He’s introduced legislation that would regulate digital political ads and published a 20-point proposal filled with possible fixes. At a hearing with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg earlier this year, he didn’t seem to need any help at all figuring out how to send emails on that WhatsApp doohicky.
Warner wants badly to work with the tech industry titans, but they haven’t made it easy. Zuckerberg had to be all but dragged to Congress, insisting that he wasn’t the best-positioned executive to address the company’s many failings. But eventually, reluctantly, the head honchos at these companies have begun to come around. That is, Warner says, with one giant exception.
When Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey take their seats at a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, one chair, reserved for Google cofounder Larry Page, may remain empty. The committee extended the invitation to Google CEO Sundar Pichai as well as Page, who is CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, but the company wanted to send senior vice president Kent Walker instead. The committee refused, leaving a glaring hole where one of the biggest internet giants in the world should be.
A Google spokesperson said Friday that Walker will privately brief members of the committee and Congress this week, but Warner’s press secretary confirmed Walker will not be testifying.
Google’s refusal to send its most senior executives comes at a particularly fraught time for the company. Over the last week, President Trump and his Republican acolytes turned on the search giant, accusing it—without much evidence—of liberal bias in news results. Meanwhile, reports that Google is building a censored search engine in order to push its way into China have raised alarms both inside the company and on Capitol Hill.
WIRED spoke with Warner about the search giant’s notable absence, the White House’s #stopthebias campaign, what to expect from this week’s hearings, and his plan to warn American companies of the looming threat posed by China. Below is a lightly edited version of the conversation.
I’ve lost count of how many hearings there have been in the House and Senate on social media interference since last year. Why will this one be any different?
I think a lot of folks have done their homework. I don’t think this one has to be about Internet 101. There were some of my colleagues who I don’t even think knew how social media works.
What I’ve told the companies is that I don’t want this to be a retrospective on what happened in 2016, but I want to know what they’re doing to prevent this happening in 2018 and beyond. Increasingly, this kind of manipulation can be used not just in politics, but also in business and other areas.
I also put out that paper a number of weeks back with a number of suggestions. I thought it was curious I got some saying this is very thoughtful. There were some people at The Wall Street Journal saying this is going to be the end of American innovation. I’d like to hear from [the companies] which of those ideas make sense, which don’t make sense. I know a number of members are interested to know whether Americans should have the right to know whether they’re being contacted by a human or a bot.
I’m not saying you’re going to eliminate bots, but how do we put some markers in place so we can judge actual volume? Twitter’s been very aggressive on some of the bots.
We also need to make sure Americans know that none of this bad action has stopped. The actions of Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter in the last two weeks, taking down other accounts, Russian and otherwise, is really important to note. If we look back at 2016, the Russian active measures campaign was really divided into two buckets. One was a cyberattack on our election system and political parties. The other was the misinformation campaign and disinformation campaign run through social media. What I think is one of the biggest growing problems, and not just on the campaign front, is when you marry a cyber incursion with a disinformation attack.
If it had been a foreign actor that hacked into Equifax, and they got your personal information and send you a link and account with your personal information, and you say, “Oh gosh, I’m going to open this up,” and then it has a deep fake video of me or a business figure, the ability to combine those two domains to wreak havoc is really important. I’ve not heard how we’re going to get ahead of it.
Google has refused to send one of its top executives to testify, and Congress has refused to let its senior vice president, Kent Walker, appear in his place. How concerned are you by Google’s absence, and if the goal is to get questions answered, why not take whoever they’ll send?
I know Kent Walker. He’s a good guy. I respect him, but we had the lawyers back in November. This is a hearing that’s going to talk about solutions. I think it speaks volumes that Google doesn’t want to be part of that discussion. I don’t think it’s good for them or for coming up with a good solution.
I was going to ask them why Google is building a search engine for China to allow Chinese censorship. Maybe they don’t want to answer some of those questions. But if Google thinks we’re just going to go away, they’re sadly mistaken. I’ve had a great working relationship with Google over the years, but I’ve been generally surprised that they might not want to be part of the conversation about how we fix this and get solutions.
Is the possibility of doing business in China something you and your colleagues will be asking Twitter and Facebook about as well this week?
That will probably not be as much the subject in this hearing. It’s more election security, misinformation, disinformation, and the combination with [cybersecurity]. I am working on a separate effort with a couple Republican colleagues, which we’ll announce at some point soon. I feel like the intelligence community continues to give me all these extraordinary warnings about Chinese influence and Chinese manipulation of equipment. I’m trying to force the intelligence community to either declassify or better combine it. We need to be out making a road show to business leaders, private equity, venture capitalists, and universities. If a bunch of rural communities buy Huawei equipment … shame on us if there’s any vulnerabilities with their 5G technology. I understand we need to protect sources and methods, but we also make our country more vulnerable if we don’t put these companies on notice.
When you say you’ll be announcing something with your Republican colleagues, do you mean legislation?
It would be less a specific piece of legislation and more of a road show to get in front of American leadership and academic leadership in a bipartisan way, to give them a higher-level, sophisticated brief on this challenge.
That’s a little different from advising American tech companies that want to work in China.
That is a different subject than what we’re talking about on Wednesday. But it’s very important.
Google’s absence comes at a time when President Trump and other lawmakers on the right are raising questions about bias in search. Do you take their concerns about algorithmic bias seriously?
I think it shows this White House has a remarkable lack of understanding of how search works. There are genuine concerns about some of the algorithms that almost create addiction tendencies, but those are generally about if you have a personal profile of searches, and you search a left-leaning story, they’re going to give you another, usually more extreme story, to keep feeding the beast.
Part of search is also driven on the volume of hits, and these extreme periodicals on the left and right just don’t have that many eyeballs.
You put out a 20-point plan to address some of the biggest problems in tech. A lot of it had to do with bots and foreign influence, for obvious reasons. But one thing I didn’t see in there was how to address these echo chambers that just have people reading increasingly more extreme versions of whatever they already believe. What’s your position on that problem?
That was obliquely come at from the idea that you can get academic experts that could validate what we all know about this, which is the fact that the algorithm drives you in whatever political direction to a greater extreme. I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe you sign up and say, “I just want an echo chamber,” or can you ask for a service that says for every three stories I read that reflect my position, should I get one thoughtful story on the other side? I’m not suggesting that, which is simplistic, but not hugely hard to implement.
That’s one reason I’m so frustrated with Google. We’re not going away. We’re going to come up with some guard posts, and I’m glad Facebook and Twitter are going to be part of the solution. It took them a long time to come to the table. But if [tech companies] don’t help us, and leave this just to Congress, we’re going to screw it up.
These companies get lumped into the same category a lot…Big Tech. But they are distinct, and I wonder if you could walk through what your main concerns are with each: Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
You’re absolutely right – they often get lumped together, but the concerns with each platform are different. With Facebook, I have real concerns around transparency and user data. As we saw with Cambridge Analytica, users don’t have a clear picture from the company about where and how their data is used. With Twitter, I’m focused on the way they have addressed, or not, issues of abuse, bots, and coordinated behavior, and the extent to which their systems can be gamed by bad actors. And YouTube is an engine of radicalization and disinformation.
Tech money plays a huge role in politics, and tech platforms are incredibly important to political campaigns. Some of the biggest complainers about new restrictions on political ads are the people who buy those ads for members of Congress running for office. Given all that, why should people trust that Congress would ever really regulate tech?
That’s why we’re trying to get tech engaged. That’s why your job is to help keep us honest. That’s why we need this debate. That’s why I put out my paper, not with the idea that I’ve got the perfect answer yet, but let me give you a menu of options, let’s see which ones make sense and which ones don’t make sense. Let’s get out of the embarrassing conversations we’ve had in the past.
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