Are Facebook, Twitter, and Google American Companies?

This week’s Senate hearing highlights a deep tension in the tech giants’ self-definitions.

Three representatives, of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, stand with their right hands raised to be sworn in for the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia's election activity
From left, Facebook's general counsel, Colin Stretch; Twitter's acting general counsel, Sean Edgett; and Google's senior vice president and general counsel, Kent Walker (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)

On Tuesday’s technology-executive hearings before the Senate Intelligence Committee, a key tension at the heart of the internet emerged: Do American tech companies, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google, operate as American companies? Or are they in some other global realm, maybe in some place called cyberspace?

In response to a tough line of questions from Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Twitter’s acting general counsel, Sean Edgett, gave two conflicting answers within a couple of minutes. Cotton pressed Edgett on Twitter’s decision to cut off the CIA’s access to alerts derived from the Twitter-data fire hose, which is provided through a company it partially owns, Dataminr, while the companies reportedly still allowed the Russian media outlet RT to continue using the service for some time.

“Do you see an equivalency between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Russian intelligence services?,” Cotton asked.

“We’re not offering our service for surveillance to any government,” Edgett responded.

“So you will apply the same policy to our intelligence community that you’d apply to an adversary’s intelligence services?,” Cotton asked again.

“As a global company, we have to apply our policies consistently,” Edgett replied.

Cotton then turned to WikiLeaks, which the Intelligence Committee has designated as a nonstate hostile intelligence agency, asking why it had been operating “uninhibited” on Twitter.

“Is it bias to side with America over our adversaries?,” Cotton demanded.

“We’re trying to be unbiased around the world,” Edgett said. “We’re obviously an American company and care deeply about the issues we’re talking about today, but as it relates to WikiLeaks or other accounts like it, we make sure they are in compliance with our policies just like every other account.”

I’ve added the emphases within Edgett’s foregoing responses because they highlight the contradiction at the heart of these global communication services, which happen to be headquartered in the state of California. Twitter is both a global company and an American company, and the way it has resolved this contradiction is to declare its allegiance to ... its own policies.

There are reasons for this. In the wake of the Snowden revelations, social-media users became aware that the data-collection machines that Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others had created to target advertising could just as easily be used to target surveillance. They’d created perfect surveillance services, which, as Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and others noted on Tuesday, “know more about Americans than the U.S. government.”

In that context, Twitter, especially, has taken pains to protect user data, fighting the U.S. government in court on multiple occasions and drawing cheers from privacy advocates. But what might have sounded reasonable in earlier years played differently in light of Russian efforts to mess with the 2016 presidential election.

For example, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California hammered on the companies’ relationship to RT. Google’s representative, Kent Walker, explained that the company had looked at RT’s content and found it not so different from everything else that can be found on Google and YouTube. “We have carefully reviewed the content of RT to see that it complies with the policies that we have against hate speech, incitement to violence, etc.,” Walker said. “So far, we have not found violations, but we continue to look.”

Staring dubiously at Walker, Feinstein said that we’re in a new era. “This could be cyber war, and you all, as a policy matter, have to really take a look at that and what role you play.”

Across the board, the companies resisted attempts by various Senators to get them to say that action by state actors should be placed in a different category from other misuses of their social-networking and advertising systems. Though it’s obvious that the companies don’t want to create new rules or have new rules imposed upon them, these deflections seemed to make clear that what Senators on both sides of the aisle find themselves objecting to is not the specific Russian revelations, but what the companies’ responses expose about the very nature of the internet business: It amasses data about people—American citizens—that anyone can use to sell them stuff. It’s effective, automated, and has only a coincidental relationship with the goals of nations.

In Monday’s hearing, Louisiana Senator John Kennedy slashed at Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, with questions about whether the company knew if other foreign governments had purchased election ads.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Stretch said.

“How could you be aware?" Kennedy said. “You’ve got 5 million advertisers and you’re gonna tell me that you’re able to trace the origin of all of those advertisements?”

Of course, it is a constituent part of the business models of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others that the buying and selling of advertisements is handled by software without the formal and informal human checks that might have existed in traditional advertising-sales relationships.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina made a similar point in his closing statement. In the old days, if a media outlet were to have received an ad buy that was suspicious—say the money came in the form of rubles—they might have exercised human judgment to make sure they did not run afoul of Federal Elections law. “If for some reason [a media company] ever questioned whether it was foreign money, you probably didn’t run the ad,” Burr said. “I hope that none of your platforms is conditional upon you not verifying where that money is coming from.”

While Feinstein declared it a new era, it is an open question how the American—and other—legislative bodies will actually deal with the information that they now have before them about how the internet works.

The only legislation that was referenced directly throughout the hearings is the Honest Ads Act, which would force tech companies to do certain things about political advertising. Senators repeatedly pressed the companies to say they’d support the bill, and each query was received with not-quite-assent.

What does not seem on the table—at least not yet—is any more-sweeping form of legislation to change the way these businesses work or bring them under new forms of American regulatory control.

Watching the Senators realize that a transfer of power has already occurred between governments around the world and the tech titans, however, seemed to portend that legislators may eventually seek greater changes.

Then the question will become if these companies believe that governments can force them to change their policies, or whether they exist in a realm outside traditional governmental control. And this state of affairs is how a set of Senate hearings has come to seem like the prologue for a cyberpunk novel.