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.