Senator Warner: Congress Has Serious Questions for Google, but Google Isn’t Taking Congress Seriously

On the eve of Senate Intelligence hearings, he discusses Google, Facebook and the expanding role of telecoms

On Wednesday, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey will sit in front of the 15 members of the Senate Intelligence Committee to discuss their companies’ role in the 2016 election and their efforts to prevent the dissemination of misinformation in November’s midterm election. The committee also invited Google, but instead of sending a C-level executive, the search giant offered to send its lawyer, Kent Walker. The committee said thanks, but no thanks. If you can’t send someone who can be held accountable, don’t send anyone at all.

It’s with this backdrop that we spoke to the committee’s vice chairman and top Democrat, Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) on Thursday. We explored three main themes: the hearing, GDPR, and the new media wars of the telecom industry, from which Sen. Warner has received $805,894 over his career.

On Wednesday’s hearing

Adweek: You’ve got your hearings coming up on Wednesday, and I wanted to get your quick take of Google. Are they taking this seriously?

Sen. Warner: They’re not taking it seriously enough to send a senior executive. And this is no disrespect to Kent Walker, but we had those lawyers back in November and I think that most of the attention has been on Facebook and Twitter in the past, but there are issues around YouTube. You know, obviously I don’t agree with President Trump’s critiques of search, but there are other concerns.

Google has not answered a lot of bipartisan questions that a number of senators were raising: what are you doing building a search engine for Chinese users that’s going to allow Chinese government censorship?

I guess they decided, rather, to have an empty chair for the world to see than to actually step up and be part of the solution. We tried to convey to them this is not going to be a gotcha hearing. This is not going to be, ‘let’s look what happened when we missed items in 2016.’

This is going to be a hearing that focuses on:

  • One: Let’s realize what happened in 2016 hasn’t stopped. And you only need to go back and look at Microsoft; you need to look at Twitter and Facebook in terms of the recent announcements of taking down accounts.
  • Two: We want to hear: what have you guys done on your own to make things more secure. And frankly, they probably got 80 percent of what we’ve asked for in The Honest Ads Act in terms of political ad disclosure.
  • Three: I put out that paper with 20 ideas. I want to know which ones they think are good, which ones they think stink. I know there’s a lot of interest from a lot of senators about the question of, well, shouldn’t an American have a right to know when they’re being contacted by a human being versus a bot?

Now, we know that’s easier to say than to do. But I’d love to hear the response on something like that.

Source: Getty Images

I’d also like to hear, and the other area at least I want to get into, and this is the next iteration of where the debate’s headed is, if you look back at 2016 campaign, the Russian active measures broke into two categories.

There were cyber activities, where they went after Hillary and [John] Podesta’s emails and weaponized information, and when they attacked 21 states’ electoral systems.

And then there was a misinformation/disinformation campaign where they created fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter and others. What I’m trying to look ahead and, frankly, this is an area that I think is also a problem with digital advertising and a problem in the markets—what happens when you combine a cyber attack with a misinformation attack?

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