Jack Dorsey and Sheryl Sandberg were on Capitol Hill Wednesday to talk about foreign meddling in U.S. elections and I hesitate to spend any time documenting their testimony.
It’s not that this isn’t important. In many respects, this is the most important issue facing Western democracies in an era where propaganda and misinformation campaigns have helped sway voter sentiment on the way to polarizing the electorate and supercharging a semi-global populist upsurge.
Rather, the reason this is an exercise in futility is that trying to figure out what went wrong, what’s still going wrong and how to fix it, is about like opening up that musty, cardboard box full of tangled Christmas lights you haven’t seen since you relegated it to a dark corner of the basement when you finally took the tree down midway through January. Nobody (including and especially Dorsey, Zuckerberg and Sandberg) has any idea where to start when it comes to untangling this mess.
While it’s obviously necessary for lawmakers to get involved when it comes to protecting the integrity of U.S. elections, it is by no means clear that it is desirable for private companies to be subjected to onerous regulations.
Even if you think the importance of protecting democracy overrides concerns about interfering in the decision making processes of corporate management, there’s every reason to believe that Congress would screw the proverbial pooch here. The only person in Washington D.C. that knows enough about social media to have a legitimate claim on an opinion when it comes to how lawmakers might go about guarding against the spread of misinformation and propaganda is Donald Trump, and he’s in on the conspiracy.
So again, these hearings seem like a waste of time up to and until the engineers at these tech companies come up some sweeping proposals for what to do and how to do it (i.e., implementation) and until Facebook, Google and Twitter come to the table with a concrete plan about how much regulation is desirable and where regulators need to focus their energy if they want to be effective and efficient as opposed to just wasting time and taxpayer money.
A “roadmap to tech regulation”, from Goldman
The Intelligence Committee left an empty chair marked “Google” after the search giant refused to send Larry Page or Sundar Pichai, instead proposing Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker, a proposal lawmakers shot down.
For whatever it’s worth, here are some clips from Sandberg’s opening comments (embedded in full below):
And here’s what Dorsey had to offer (his full opening remarks are embedded below as well):
All of this comes in the two months leading up to the midterms which the U.S. intelligence community has repeatedly warned are being targeted by Russia. It also comes amid criticism from Donald Trump with regard to what he claims is an effort to silence conservative voices on social media, following high profile bans for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars operation.
Read more on Trump’s criticism of Google
The President’s allegations against Google have no basis in reality. What he’s describing as “conservative” commentary is, in large part, propaganda and not representative of serious analysis.
Trump has also waffled repeatedly when asked whether he concurs with the intelligence community’s assessment of midterm election interference. In July, following the bungled Putin summit in Helsinki, Trump appeared to say Russia was not actively attempting to influence the vote in November. Hours later, in an interview with CBS’s Jeff Glor, he backtracked – or at least with regard to the 2016 election. Here’s the not-at-all convincing clip from that interview and do note how visibly skeptical Glor appears:
As far as markets are concerned, the specter of regulation isn’t going away for big-cap tech. In fact, regulatory concerns are pretty much the only thing that’s been able to materially dent otherwise ebullient sentiment in the space. In March, concerns about regulation led to a sharp selloff. That sour sentiment returned on Wednesday, with Twitter falling sharply intraday.
On a closing basis, this would be the worst day since the late July selloff, when the irony inherent in the effort to combat fake accounts was laid bare. Here’s what we said in July in “The Devolution Will Be Televised“:
This is a kind of tragicomedy with multiple layers of irony. The companies helped shrink the world and thus epitomized globalization, but the very connections the platforms helped foster were hijacked in an effort to supercharge the propagation of anti-globalist sentiment. Then, when management attempted to “correct” the problem, shareholders punished them.
The Nasdaq fell sharply as other tech giants suffered a similar, if less severe, fate. The NDX VIX spiked to a 19-handle.
The bottom line for Google and the social media giants is that the genie isn’t going back in the bottle here. That point was underscored earlier this year by Doug Schwartz, a partner at CGCN Group, former Chief of Staff to the Senate Republican Conference, working on legislative and political strategy, and former senior advisor to Senator John Thune of South Dakota, who spoke to Goldman for an interview on regulatory risk for tech. Here are some useful excerpts that are even more relevant now than they were back in April when the interview was conducted:
Goldman’s Allison Nathan: Where does tech find support in Washington? Is there a specific party that typically aligns with the sector’s interests?
Doug Schwartz: Tech seems to be politically “homeless” right now—facing tough questions from critics on both sides of the aisle. On the Republican side, while many lawmakers have typically backed the interests of the tech industry on bottomline issues related to taxation and regulation, the tech industry is often viewed as not being particularly friendly toward Republicans. And of course, Republicans have had serious concerns about anti-conservative bias and censorship of conservative viewpoints on social media platforms. So Republicans won’t necessarily fall on their sword to defend the industry today.
Democrats, on the other hand, have their own reasons to be skeptical: not only the recent revelations about privacy practices, but also the perception that parts of the industry played a role in President Trump’s victory in the 2016 election. So the Democrats are not all that interested in carrying water for tech companies, either.
Goldman’s Allison Nathan: Do you believe the recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica—and Zuckerberg’s subsequent testimony—represent a watershed moment, in which Washington more fully turns its attention to Silicon Valley? Or will the issue of tech regulation fade?
Doug Schwartz: I’m not sure I’d call the recent developments a watershed moment, but I don’t think the genie will be put back in the bottle, either. From a congressional perspective, tech is now being treated more like other industries, which have long been subjected to greater oversight, CEO questioning, and congressional testimony. That’s a new development we probably won’t see reversed.
You can draw your own conclusions, but suffice to say this is an issue that won’t be resolved anytime soon, especially not given who currently occupies the Oval Office.
As noted in the interview excerpted above, both Democrats and Republicans have reason to push for tech regulation. But those reasons aren’t necessarily aligned, and again, it’s by no means clear lawmakers can figure out how to properly get the job done.