Google, Facebook and Twitter scramble to hold Washington at bay

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San Francisco – Google summoned about 200
policy staff from around the world last month for a debate on whether
the company’s size has made it too attractive as a target for government
regulators.

The two-day retreat in Monterey, California, where employees from the
$682bn company plied Washington policy experts with questions
about the pros and cons of its size, took place as Google confronts
European antitrust claims and proposed US legislation that would
increase online publishers’ liability for content produced by others.

This week, the

Alphabet unit disclosed new information that could further roil the
regulatory picture:

revelations that Russian-linked accounts used its advertising network to
interfere with the 2016 presidential election.

The news put Google in
the company of

Facebook and

Twitter, both of which are embroiled in the controversy surrounding
Russia’s involvement in last year’s US elections. Executives at all
three companies are scrambling to respond.

Facebook has hired two crisis PR firms, and it plans to bring on as
many as 1 000 people to screen ads. Top executives, including CEO

Mark Zuckerberg, are contacting members of Congress directly.

The company
reported spending more than $3.2m on lobbying in the first
quarter of 2017, a company record. Google spent almost $6m in the
second quarter for its own record. Both companies, with Twitter, are
working together to deal with issues related to the Russian ads.

“There is a lot of pressure to intervene in this case because of the
democratic implications,” said Laura DeNardis, director of the Internet
Governance Lab at American University in Washington. “Because of the
rising stakes for cyberspace, for the economy, for democracy, there is
greater attention on the part of all actors.”

It’s a delicate balance for the companies, whose products reached
massive scale because of their ability to transact advertising
automatically, without much restriction. They must figure out how much
responsibility to take and how much change to promise,
without succumbing to costly regulation or setting a precedent that
might be difficult to follow in other countries.

In the context of political advertising, some lawmakers are already
proposing new limits. “We must update our laws to ensure that when
political ads are sold online Americans know who paid for them,” Senator

Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, said on Monday.

Two congressional committees and special counsel Robert Mueller are
examining whether Russian operatives used social-media platforms to
influence US voters in 2016.

Investigators are also examining possible
collusion between Russian interests and associates of President

Donald Trump. Facebook has turned over more than 3 000 ads purchased by
Russian entities to both congressional investigations. Twitter has said
it gave the panels a roundup of advertisements by RT, a TV network
funded by the Russian government that was formerly known as Russia
Today.

Facebook for years has

sought exemptions from political-ad disclosure rules – but the company
recently said it’s working on ways to show who pays for ads. It also
indicated it might be open to some regulation regarding transparency.

For Google, the new concerns around political advertising come as it
responds to European antitrust charges and tries to preserve online
platforms’ liability protections under a law known as Section 230. A
Senate bill aimed at stopping online sex trafficking has drawn
opposition from Google, Facebook and other internet companies because it
weakens those protections.

Google executives expected Congress to be
more receptive to its arguments that penalising knowledge of trafficking
might stop smaller internet companies from looking for it at all. They
were caught off-guard by negative responses to the company’s lobbying,
according to one Washington operative who works for the company.

Meanwhile, a potential showdown on political advertising looms on
November 1, when executives from Google, Facebook and Twitter have been
summoned to Washington to give public testimony before congressional
committees.

Facebook’s two top executives – Zuckerberg and chief operating officer

Sheryl Sandberg – have joined others in making calls to members of
Congress and trying to smooth relationships, the company said. It has
also hired two crisis communications firms to help it on both Republican
and Democratic fronts. And a letter went out to advertisers, saying
Facebook staff would manually review ads that target people based on
their politics, religion, ethnicity or social issues.

Facebook’s vice president of public policy,

Elliot Schrage, started a question-and-answer-style blog called “Hard
Questions” in June. In consultation with

Liz Spayd, the former New York Times public editor, Facebook updates the
blog when news breaks on the company’s relationship with the Trump
campaign and the Russian ads.

On Sunday, when “60 Minutes” aired an interview with the Trump
campaign’s digital director saying he had partisan Facebook employees
work as “

embeds” in the campaign, the company added an explanation of how its
services for Trump were standard for any advertiser during an important
event.

The strategy is meant to reassure the public, and lawmakers, that
Facebook is working diligently on solutions and therefore doesn’t need
to be regulated more. But some critics say that by volunteering to be
responsible, Facebook is opening itself up to more publicity and more
blame.

Inside the company, leaders are dismayed by how the public is
interpreting its involvement in the Russia investigation, according to a
person familiar with their thinking. Executives fear that Facebook’s
work for the presidential campaigns is being re-framed as partisan, for
example, even though it offers the same services to any major
advertiser.

Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, defended the company
from media critics who say it should have found a technical solution to
the problem of fake news. It’s not that simple – and any quick solution
could end up being ideologically biased, he said in a series of recent
posts on Twitter.

Facebook, Twitter and Google are cooperating on issues related to the
Russian political ads. A person familiar with the effort said it was
similar to how the three firms would work together on difficult
industrywide issues, such as child pornography or content from terrorist
groups.

“We are taking a deeper look to investigate attempts to abuse our
systems, working with researchers and other companies, and will provide
assistance to ongoing inquiries,” a Google spokesperson said on Monday.

Twitter executives have been in frequent contact with Congressional
committees and investigators to try and answer their questions before
November 1, according to a person familiar with the matter. The company is
addressing the issue from multiple angles, the person said, including
asking engineers to examine spam-use on the platform and asking its
advertising team to delve into ad purchases by RT, the Russian TV
network.

Teaching Twitter’s algorithms to find malicious actors is
challenging; Russian actors in particular are moving away from bots and
networks to human beings that behave in coordinated ways, the person
said. For instance, it can be difficult for Twitter’s algorithms to
detect the difference between a group of paid tweets in Eastern Europe
and a group of legitimate tweeters who are all posting at the same time
at a convention.

Meanwhile, Google took a more creative approach to discussing its
future last month. At the policy session in Monterey, one speaker played
the opposition, voicing concerns about the power big corporations can
wield over society. Another played defense. That was

Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation
Foundation. His upcoming book, Big is Beautiful – co-authored by
Michael Lind – argues larger firms create progress and prosperity.

“It was very open-minded to have that kind of debate,” Atkinson said
when reached by phone. “The threats against Google are certainly more
severe now. Trying to portray yourself just as a good company is not
adequate enough.”

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