In the U.K., lawmakers grilled a top Facebook executive about the company’s entanglement with Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy that improperly accessed the names, “likes” and personal information of 87 million users. The executive, Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer, admitted that Facebook did not review the terms and conditions governing an app that collected the data for Cambridge Analytica in 2013.
In the United States, meanwhile, congressional lawmakers focused their fire on another matter – allegations that the algorithms operated by Facebook, Google and Twitter censor conservative views and news. All three companies declined to appear at the hearing, a tense, loud, three-hour affair during which pro-Trump commentators Diamond and Silk accused major online platforms of suppressing their videos – and the video bloggers yelled at lawmakers who questioned them.
Separating the two sessions was more than an ocean: British lawmakers appeared united in their quest for answers, while the U.S. gathering seemed to some members of Congress as an exercise in election-year partisan squabbling, not meaningful oversight.
On both continents, though, tech’s latest political trial by fire appeared to presage more scrutiny to come. European regulators are still demanding that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testify about his company’s privacy practices. And Republicans in the U.S. Congress raised the specter of regulations, subpoenas and boycotts as Democrats insisted there are other areas of the tech industry more worthy of their attention.
For Facebook, the headaches began Thursday morning in London. Lawmakers like Jo Stephens focused some of their questions on the quiz app that fed data about Facebook users and their friends to Cambridge Analytica. Stephens specifically pressed Schroepfer on whether Facebook had read and evaluated the terms and conditions for that app, called ThisIsYourDigitalLife, before allowing it on the platform. Facebook’s executive replied: “We did not read all the terms and conditions.”
British lawmakers left the session frustrated. In a later statement, they once again urged Zuckerberg to testify, who sent Schroepfer in his place. Damian Collins, the leader of the Digital, Culture Media and Sport Committee, said that they are prepared to “issue a formal summons for him to appear when he is next in the UK.” Zuckerberg also is discussing potential testimony to the European Parliament next month, though nothing has been scheduled.
Across the Atlantic, the House Judiciary Committee hearing was supposed to focus on social networks and “filtering.” Yet the whole of Silicon Valley found itself on trial, as Republicans alleged that internet giants stifled conservatives’ speech.
Appearing as a witness, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), at one point lamented the “black box of an algorithm” that powers these platforms, questioning: “Why is it the mistakes always seem to run in one direction?”
Driving the hearing was the controversy around Diamond and Silk, two supporters of President Trump who have alleged that Facebook sent them a message describing the videos on their Facebook page as “unsafe to the community.” Facebook has said that the bloggers' description of that message was “inaccurate,” noting it had reached out repeatedly to Diamond and Silk to discuss and fix the problem. Nevertheless, the blogging duo claimed Thursday – under oath – that Facebook and other tech companies had censored them.
At times yelling at lawmakers, Lynnette Hardaway, known as Diamond, said, “Facebook along with other social media sites have taken aggressive actions to silence conservative voices like ourselves.” She and her co-host similarly charged that Google-owned YouTube had “demonetized,” or stripped advertising, from some of their videos, including 95 percent of them during August 2017. Google later rejected that characterization.
Diamond and Silk initially said they had never taken money from Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, despite a federal ethics report suggesting otherwise – though they later clarified they had received aid in the form of a refunded plane ticket.
For Republicans, the concerns about anti-conservative bias especially stem from the fact that Facebook, Google and Twitter are based in liberal-leaning Silicon Valley. Zuckerberg told Congress earlier this month that he understood “where that concern is coming from,” adding a key focus is “making sure that we do not have any bias in the work that we do.”
Still, the issue isn’t likely to dissipate, after the leader of the committee, Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte (Va.), promised to “pursue whatever means necessary” to question Facebook, Google and Twitter – a potential threat of a subpoena still to come. GOP Rep. Lamar Smith (Texas) even suggested a boycott of tech companies that don’t rethink their policies.
The hearing left Democrats seething. All week, party lawmakers fretted that a session they saw as more serious – a private meeting with Christopher Wylie, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica turned whistleblower -- had no Republican participation. Conservative bias online, however, amounted to little more than a “hoax,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrat on the committee.
“We could be here for a lot of reasons this morning,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) during a later exchange. “We could be looking into manipulation of Facebook by the Russians to help Donald Trump get elected. We could be looking into Russian interference with the presidential election. We could be looking into Russian hacking of state election processes. We could be talking in this committee about legislation to protect the Mueller investigation. None of those areas has this committee been involved with during the last 15 months we’ve been in session.”