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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

TikTok and Snapchat are testifying for the first time. Their peers are in the double-digits.

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Happy Thursday! We’d like to welcome you to the merriest season of all: NBA opening week. 

Below: Facebook’s Oversight Board speaks out, and the Roku-YouTube tiff is rekindled. But first:

TikTok and Snapchat are testifying for the first time. Their peers are in the double-digits.

TikTok and Snapchat will testify before Congress next week for the first time, spokespeople for the companies confirmed Wednesday, as Senate lawmakers broaden their investigation into how social media platforms are affecting kids’ safety. 

Meanwhile, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is being called by the same panel to appear on Capitol Hill for what would be his eighth time in four years, and the 31st time for any Facebook executive in that same time span, spokesman Andy Stone confirmed.

The disparity highlights how lawmakers’ oversight of Silicon Valley companies has fixated on a few major platforms, most notably Facebook. 

Critics say the focus is not unwarranted: The tech giant has faced a long string of scandals over allegations it abuses its users’ privacy, unfairly scoops up or crushes budding rivals, and has failed to protect its platforms against hate speech, violent rhetoric and other harmful content. 

In recent weeks, Facebook has additionally been rocked by whistleblower Frances Haugen’s disclosure of internal research suggesting the company knew its products, particularly Instagram, made some teen girls feel worse about their body image issues, even suicidal. Senate lawmakers hauled in its head of safety, Antigone Davis, to testify on the matter last month.

But some researchers such as Harvard Law School lecturer Evelyn Douek have argued that Congress’ myopic focus has made it all but turn a blind eye to several of the world’s most influential sites, including TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube, which will also testify next week. 

Douek, who has challenged lawmakers to summon YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki in particular to testify for the first time, celebrated the lineup for the next hearing.

Lawmakers haven’t just zeroed in on Facebook and its chief, however. 

Google, which has faced its own wave of scrutiny on antitrust, privacy and content issues, has testified at least 20 times over the past four years, including four times by CEO Sundar Pichai

Twitter, which is dwarfed by both Facebook and Google and their respective subsidiaries Instagram and YouTube in market cap and user base, has testified on Capitol Hill 18 times, five of those featuring CEO Jack Dorsey, spokesman Trenton Kennedy said.  

The frequency of Twitter’s appearances is particularly noteworthy, given that it has fewer monthly active users than TikTok, Snapchat or Pinterest, in addition to Facebook and Google’s suite of products, according to recent reports. Pinterest has also never testified on Capitol Hill, the company confirmed. 

Reddit, another prominent social media platform with hundreds of millions of monthly active users, has only testified on Capitol Hill twice, the company confirmed. Both times its CEO, Steve Huffman, represented the company, once alongside Google.

Amazon, one of only a handful of companies worth more than a trillion dollars, has testified eight times over the past four years, once by its CEO, according to spokesperson Jodi Seth. That’s four times as many as Reddit, but less than half as often as Twitter during that same period. Microsoft, another trillion-dollar company, has appeared eight times this year alone, spokesperson Kate Frischmann confirmed. 

Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Pichai have all individually testified more often than the entirety of Reddit, Pinterest, TikTok and Snapchat combined. 

Yet while Facebook and Google executives have testified dozens of times, including several blockbuster side-by-side appearances by their CEOs, their massive subsidiaries Instagram and YouTube haven’t as much. Instagram has never appeared, and while YouTube has testified at least three times, neither of its chiefs have ever appeared. (Senate lawmakers are also now calling on Instagram head Adam Mosseri to testify.)

It’s not the first time lawmakers have tried to summon TikTok and Snapchat to the Capitol, though. 

A panel led by GOP tech critic Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) demanded in 2019 that TikTok and Apple appear at a hearing about whether the companies posed national security risks due to their dealings in China. When both companies declined to appear, lawmakers left empty seats for their executives at the witness table — a classic congressional move to voice displeasure. 

Efforts to get Snapchat to testify on Capitol Hill date back to at least 2014, when Jay Rockefeller, then the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, bashed the company for refusing to testify about a series of data breaches it had disclosed at the time. 

Though both companies have since gotten scrutiny in the form of congressional letters and briefings, there’s been little-to-no talk of them testifying, until now. 

On Tuesday, TikTok’s head of U.S. public policy Michael Beckerman, Google’s vice president of government affairs and public policy Leslie Miller and Snapchat’s vice president of global public policy Jennifer Stout will testify before Senate Commerce’s consumer protection panel. 

When might we see the companies next? Time will tell. 

Our top tabs

Facebook Oversight Board reprimands tech giant for lack of transparency

The board accused the company in a quarterly report Thursday of not being “fully forthcoming” about a key program, Cat Zakrzewski reports.

The group said Facebook “failed to provide relevant information” to it about the company’s “XCheck” program, which shields VIP users such as politicians and celebrities from its rules. It was “not acceptable,” the board wrote, that Facebook didn’t mention the “XCheck” system when it briefed the entity about its enforcement policies on politicians when it was reviewing the company’s decision to ban former president Donald Trump.

“The credibility of the Oversight Board, our working relationship with Facebook, and our ability to render sound judgments on cases all depend on being able to trust that information provided to us by Facebook is accurate, comprehensive, and paints a full picture of the topic at hand” said the board, a panel of about 20 experts from around the world.

Groups funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar supported Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen 

Omidyar’s Luminate philanthropic organization is handling Haugen’s European press and government relations, Politico’s Emily Birnbaum reports. An Omidyar-funded group also funded the nonprofit representing Haugen, Birnbaum writes.

Last year, Omidyar’s foundation “gave $150,000 to Whistleblower Aid, the nonprofit organization that is providing Haugen’s legal representation and advice,” Emily writes. “And Haugen’s top PR representative in the U.S., former Obama spokesperson Bill Burton, runs public affairs for the nonprofit Center for Humane Technology, an advocacy organization that receives funding from Omidyar. Haugen appeared on a Center for Humane Technology podcast earlier this month.”

Facebook declined to comment to Politico. Haugen's representatives did not respond to a request for comment from the outlet.

YouTube-Roku dispute heats back up 

There’s a new wrinkle in the spat between streaming hardware maker Roku and online video giant YouTube, Gerrit De Vynck reports for The Technology 202.

The two have been at odds over how to display search results for YouTube videos in the Roku app since last April. On Thursday, Roku sent a new email to customers doubling down on its claims that YouTube wanted special preference in search results and an arrangement that would give it insight into what people were searching for on the Roku app. Back when the feud first kicked off, YouTube had called those claims “baseless and false.” 

Now Roku is saying YouTube is the one that’s making false claims. The dispute has already led to the company blocking new Roku users from accessing YouTube TV, Google’s version of a live cable TV subscription. Now it threatens to pull in the main YouTube app too, which is on Roku under a deal that expires at the end of the year. 

YouTube says Roku is using strong-arm tactics and taking advantage of the broader animus against Big Tech to appeal to legislators and try to get a better business deal. YouTube spokesperson Mariana De Felice said Thursday that “Roku has once again chosen to make unproductive and baseless claims rather than try to work constructively with us.” 

Either way, the feud isn’t winding down and looks set to remain as yet another ongoing skirmish. 

Rant and rave

As Facebook reportedly considers a potential rename, tech journalists are abuzz with their picks. ZDNet's Larry Dignan:

Our colleague, Heather Kelly:

Inside the industry

Trump, still barred from Twitter and Facebook, to launch social network in ‘fight back’ against Big Tech (Bryan Pietsch)

Social media executives will be prosecuted for hatred and abuse online, says Boris Johnson (The Times)

Workforce report

Amazon Workers on Staten Island Aim for Union Vote (New York Times)

Trending

Who’s really running Justice? (The American Prospect)

Social media companies kept banning pictures of ‘explicit’ art. So, Vienna museums will now post on OnlyFans. (Jonathan Edwards)

Mentions

  • TechNet hired Ruthie Barko to be its executive director for Colorado and the central U.S. region. Barko joins the group after running state government affairs at the Air Methods Corporation.

Daybook

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee discusses the nomination of Jonathan Kanter, President Biden’s pick to lead the Justice Department’s antitrust division, today at 9 a.m.
  • Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), Defense Innovation Unit Director Michael Brown and John Costello, National Cyber Director Chris Inglis’s chief of staff, discuss a U.S. national technology strategy at a Center for a New American Security event today at 10:30 a.m.
  • The Federal Trade Commission discusses the privacy practices of Internet service providers at an open meeting today at 1 p.m.
  • Alondra Nelson, deputy director for science and society at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, participates in a Brookings Institution event on technology equity today at 2 p.m.
  • House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) discusses law enforcement algorithms at a Brookings Institution event on Oct. 25 at 3 p.m.

Before you log off

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