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Jack and Sheryl go to Washington

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Programming note: As I mentioned last week, I'm heading to Portland for XOXO Festival tomorrow. I hea
 
September 5 · Issue #201 · View online
The Interface
Programming note: As I mentioned last week, I’m heading to Portland for XOXO Festival tomorrow. I heard back from lots of folks who are planning to be there, and I’m looking forward to saying hello to all of you. I’ll see everyone else back here on Monday.
Heading into today’s tech hearings, conventional wisdom held that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg would sail through on the strength of her poise and command of the facts. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, making his first appearance before Congress, was expected to struggle. Google, which declined to send CEO Sundar Pichai (or Alphabet CEO Larry Page), and which would be represented on the dais by an empty chair, was expected to receive the worst of lawmakers’ scorn.
As the day began, before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the conventional wisdom appeared to hold. These two paragraphs from The New York Times’ formidable five-person live-blogging operation capture the dynamic:
Ms. Sandberg, who was born in Washington, and spent years living there during her time at the Treasury Department, appeared confident in her opening remarks. Speaking clearly and with practiced pacing, she complimented the committee’s previous work on election interference.
Mr. Dorsey stumbled during his opening, forgetting to turn on his microphone and reading from a cellphone he held in his hand. He added that he was also live-tweeting his opening remarks through his Twitter account.
Google, meanwhile, did indeed incur the wrath of the lawmakers. It had offered to send its chief legal and policy executive, Kent Walker, but the Senate declined. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu, and Congress looks hungry,” a lobbyist tells Mark Bergen and Ben Brody in Bloomberg. They offer some informed speculation on why Google declined to send Page or Pichai:
For Google, the Senate decision may be a calculated risk. The bad optics of an empty chair could outweigh being dragged further into a morass that Google may feel belongs to Facebook and Twitter. Google found far less election spending from Russia’s Internet Research Agency than the other two. When Walker testified in earlier hearings, the lawyer repeatedly emphasized that Google was, unlike its peers, not a “social network.”
The risk appeared not to pay off, in part because the Senate hearing — focused on how companies were working to protect their platforms from foreign attacks — was cordial and workmanlike. Unlike the disastrous House of Representatives hearing about “bias” in April, this one was conducted largely in good faith. Google missed out on a chance to build goodwill with lawmakers simply by repeating what its executives had said elsewhere — the approach that both Facebook and Twitter took, to good results.
Sandberg, as expected, sailed through her portion of the hearing, essentially elaborating on the primer that CEO Mark Zuckerberg had offered up the night before in an op-ed in the Washington Post. Facebook is hiring moderators, killing fake accounts, making ads public and searchable, and working with fact checkers to reduce the spread of misinformation. All of this had been widely publicized before, and now it’s once again part of the Congressional record.
If there was a surprise in the hearing, it was that Dorsey’s unpracticed, shy-guy persona played so well with lawmakers. He, too, offered lawmakers promises he has made elsewhere, as during his recent media tour. Twitter is thinking about labeling bots; it’s thinking about conversational health; it’s thinking about rethinking the entire service. The Senate took him at his word, praising him for his candor and (late in the day) his endurance.
In the House, where Dorsey appeared alone to answer more than four hours’ worth of lawmakers’ questions, the tone was often sharper — but members of Congress were ultimately just as deferential. Dorsey kept his cool through some bizarre moments, most notably a far-right activist screaming and a conservative lawmaker assuming the voice of an auctioneer and staging a faux auction until she could be escorted out of the building.
Republicans asked, over and over, whether Twitter’s programs, policies and employees favored liberal causes and politicians over conservative ones. Not at all, Dorsey patiently answered, over and over.
And Democrats split their time between complaining about other issues they wished the hearing focused on, like Twitter’s failure to keep abusive users off the platform, and the fact that the entire hearing seemed ginned up as a political exercise to help Republicans in the fall elections.
If you watched any of this, there’s no way you think US lawmakers are going to do anything about US internet companies, or anything else.
Some folks, of course, do think lawmakers are going to regulate US internet companies, possibly soon. The Justice Department said Wednesday that it would meet with states attorney general to discuss whether companies like Facebook and Google are hurting competition and stifling the free exchange of ideas. “Congress is going to have to take action here,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-VA, said in a widely circulated quote from Wednesday’s hearings. “The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end.”
Time will tell, though I still have my doubts. (Warner is, after all, a member of the minority party.) On the whole, though, I found the day’s proceedings heartening. Members of Congress, who have now taken several runs at top tech leaders, seem to be developing an actual command of how social-media platforms work, their benefits and risks, and the complex nature of trying to regulate them. Tech companies are responding accordingly — if not always aggressively, or even effectively.
It’s not enough. It’s not clear to me what would be enough. But it’s a start.

Democracy
The 7 biggest moments from today’s social media hearings
Who’s in Charge of Protecting Social Media from Election Interference?
Benin is taxing use of social media apps like Facebook, WhatsApp
Alleged Russian Operatives Spreading Fake News Sneak Back Onto Facebook
Elsewhere
Many US Facebook users have changed privacy settings or taken a break
Facebook’s Own Training Materials Fell for Fake News
Facebook Accuses BlackBerry of Stealing Voice-Messaging Tech
Vimeo pivots business from media to tech
Launches
Snap launches new styles of Spectacles that look more like traditional sunglasses
Takes
The monopoly-busting case against Google, Amazon, Uber, and Facebook
I’m teaching email security to Democratic campaigns. It’s as bad as 2016.
And finally ...
The Guys Who Slide Into DMs With ‘Creepy Asterisks’
Talk to me
Send me tips, questions, comments, and Congressional testimony: casey@theverge.com.
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