Big Tech Vs. DC: A Disruption Playbook

The headlines today in Tech will be all about the Senate and House testimonies by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Both will appear at 930am in front of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Dorsey will have a solo appearance in front of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in the afternoon.

The first thing you need to know about all this is that Google is a no-show, which is truly remarkable. Senators wanted Alphabet CEO Larry Page at the table; the company offered up their General Counsel, Kent Walker, but that didn’t fly with the committee. Expect to see an empty chair tomorrow with Page’s name on it. There is chatter in DC about a Congressional subpoena to force the company to testify, but not this time around.

Wired had a great interview with Senator Mark Warner, the vice chair of the Intel committee, and he is clearly unhappy with Google’s decision to sit this one out: https://www.wired.com/story/mark-warner-senate-committee-hearing-google-facebook-twitter/

As much as the sight of Big Tech’s C-suite going head-to-head with Congress might make you think broad regulation is just around the corner, the truth is these hearings are fairly narrow in scope. We’ve read both Sandberg’s and Dorsey’s prepared testimonies and pre-game interviews with members of Congress who will be in the room. Here’s our take:

#1. The Senate Committee hearing centers on the role of social media in the election process and, more generally, news dissemination. Sandberg’s opening statement runs to 10 pages, but her message is that Facebook is:

  • Removing fake accounts
  • Preventing coordinated “inauthentic” behavior that seeks to “mislead” users
  • Tackling false news with human fact-checkers
  • Increasing the transparency of who pays for ads
  • Targeting specific elections for elevated levels of scrutiny

You can read the entire text in the link below, but what struck us was the size of the challenge and the company’s limited resources to address them.Yes, Facebook removed over a billion fake accounts in 6 months earlier this year, but it only has the ability to review content in 50 languages and photo/video content in just 9 countries. The only piece of legislation that comes up in Sandberg’s testimony is the “Honest Ads Act”, and that only applies to US political advertising.

Full testimony here: https://www.scribd.com/document/387790836/Facebook-s-Sheryl-Sandberg-Prepared-Senate-Testimony#fullscreen&from_embed

Honest Ads Act description: https://www.warner.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/the-honest-ads-act

#2. Jack Dorsey’s testimony in front of the House will essentially focus on one topic: possible political censorship on the platform. His prepared comments are more expansive, however, and touch on:

  • Improving the “health, openness and civility of public conversation” by reducing malicious activity on the platform and developing quantifiable measurements of “healthy” discourse.
  • Refining the algorithms that decide what users see in their timelines and searches.
  • Reviewing what occurred during the 2016 US Presidential elections with respect to Russian interference.
  • New steps to limit fake accounts and spam

As for what will be the centerpiece of this meeting – the possible censoring of right-wing users – Dorsey offers up a provocative statistic: Democratic members of Congress have more active Twitter followers and tweet more often then their Republican counterparts. The not-so-subtle message is, “If you want to be more visible on my platform, get more followers and use it more.” Kudos for pitching his company’s wares, at least….

Full testimony here: https://d3i6fh83elv35t.cloudfront.net/static/2018/09/Dorsey.pdf

The bottom line:

  • Hearings like the ones to be held tomorrow are mostly theater with a little bit of fact-finding. Writing new laws to make political advertising more transparent is an easy topic for all to embrace. That will likely happen.
  • If you listen carefully to both company executives and lawmakers, you will hear a common level of uncertainty about how social media is changing society. The technologists see that through the lens of data/algorithms and manage the process with those tools. The politicians wonder how honest the technologists can be, and what (if any) regulation can ensure they remain competitive and hold onto their seats.
  • We’ve always thought that technology, in the end, disrupts government more than any individual business. That’s what tomorrow’s hearings are really about.
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