- Representatives from tech giants Google, Facebook and Twitter sat through the first of three scheduled hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election, as reported by a number of media outlets including TechCrunch and ABC News. Questions by senators extended beyond Russia and pointed to broader concerns U.S. politicians have over the size and influence of these digital platforms.
- All three companies sent general counsel to the hearings instead of top executives, a move that indicated the tech giants were interested in controlling some of the legal aspects around the questioning rather than offering more open comments from executives or even engineers who would have more direct knowledge of what happened during the election.
- The questioning from U.S. senators became contentious at times. At one point Sen. Al Franken from Minnesota stated, "People are buying ads on your platform with rubles. They are political ads. You put billions of data points together all the time. ...Google has all knowledge that man has ever developed. You can't put together rubles with a political ad and go like, 'Hmmm, those data points spell out something pretty bad?'"
A key takeaway from yesterday's hearings is that the Senate Judiciary Committee is eyeing much more than assessing what role the tech giants played as Russia tried to influence the outcome of last year's presidential election. Yesterday’s hearing, along with the next two on schedule, will likely go a long way toward determining how serious Congress might be in passing legislation regarding the purchase of digital ads.
In one exchange yesterday, it became clear that digital platforms are not only receiving ad revenue from Russian-backed political ads but, in some cases, they may also be helping fund Russian media sites, according to a live update on the hearing by The Wall Street Journal. For example, RT, a Kremlin-backed media channel was also making money on ads running on its YouTube videos. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota asked if this was the case and Google’s Richard Salgado confirmed RT would have been paid by Google for any ads that ran on its YouTube channel.
Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch was the recipient of Franken’s comments even though the senator referenced Google in his statement, and Stretch was on the end of another dressing down by Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana who asked how many advertisers Facebook has in a given month and was told 5 million. Kennedy responded with, “You’ve got 5 million advertisers and you’re trying to tell me you’re going to be able to trace the origin of all of those advertisers?” Clearly, some are wondering if digital platforms, as their size becomes so big, can ever effectively monitor who is advertising.
The tech giants hope to avoid any legislation with teeth around election ads that might require them to guarantee the ads aren’t being purchased by foreign groups along with penalties for not complying. One area where the digital ad platforms might face an uphill battle is election ad oversight, as the rules for TV and other traditional media are already significantly more stringent than for online ads as election law hasn’t caught up with technology.