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Facebook, Twitter, Google are in Washington's hot seat

Some of the world’s largest sites are announcing new rules ahead of a congressional hearing that will likely raise the specter of regulation.

US Capitol building at sunset

The tech industry is facing increasing pressure from lawmakers.

Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg's status update should say: It's go time.

For years, Facebook, Twitter and Google have been the darlings of the tech industry, making it their mission to help people share silly cat videos, offer "Which Disney princess are you?" questionnaires and host social protests like the Arab Spring.

While there were tussles over privacy and threats about potentially monopolistic practices, these companies mostly lived in a happy-go-lucky, "we're changing the world and pretty much everyone loves us for it" bubble.

Not anymore.

Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai now find themselves in the spotlight of Washington's lawmakers, who are calling on the companies to testify this week in congressional hearings about one of the biggest political scandals in decades. At its heart is the question of whether Facebook, Twitter and Google negligently allowed Russia-backed operatives to use their services to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Tech companies "at first were very dismissive of the fact that their platforms were used both as vehicles for paid [Russian] advertising [and] as places where Russians were able to create fake accounts" to promote specific groups and stories, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner said in a September interview at the Washington Ideas Forum. "They need to be extremely forthcoming."

This week may go down in history as the time Congress decided to begin a crackdown and regulate internet companies -- or the time the companies skated away.

So far, Facebook and Twitter have begun tweaking harassment rules, making political ads more transparent and sharing research findings. It's all part their effort to look like they're doing as much as they can to convince legislators that they're serious about their jobs as stewards of online communities that connect billions of people around the world.

"The worry is that these companies have become too powerful and influential, and there's not enough transparency," said Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research. At the same time, it's hard to imagine what kind of things Congress could reasonably regulate, beyond things like requiring more transparency around political ads. Facebook, Twitter and Google have already promised to do just that.

Ultimately, Congress may not opt for a purely logical and technical approach. "No matter what these companies do, if there are people out there determined to punish these companies somehow, there may not be anything they can do," Dawson said.

Facebook and Twitter didn't respond to requests for comment.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, as he introduced new rules for Facebook ads in September.

Facebook

Time to self-regulate

Facebook and Twitter have had rules in place for years that ban stuff like violence, harassment and abuse of their service to intimidate and harm people.

But in the past year, it's become evident they weren't prepared for a hostile government to use their sites to manipulate an election -- namely, the bitter 2016 election that elevated Donald Trump to the presidency.

At first, Zuckerberg dismissed concerns that Facebook was at fault, even telling former President Barack Obama the very idea that hoax posts on his service played a key role in the US election was "crazy," according to a report in The Washington Post.

Within months, Zuckerberg had done an about-face, promising to clean up the social network to slow the spread of fake stories and more transparently identify political ads.

"Facebook's mission is all about giving people a voice and bringing people closer together. Those are deeply democratic values and we're proud of them," Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook in September when announcing the changes. "I don't want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy. That's not what we stand for."

Twitter has also begun to more aggressively respond to harassment, and has banned ads on its site that come from Russian publications Sputnik and Russia Today.

"Far too often in the past we've said we'd do better and promised transparency but have fallen short in our efforts," Twitter said in a statement while unveiling some of its newest policies.

Google said Monday it is preparing a transparency report about ads that ran on its service during the election, as well as a publicly accessible database of election ads and disclosures about who buys ads people see.

"Improving transparency is a good start, but we must also address new and evolving threat vectors for misinformation and attacks on future elections," wrote Kent Walker, Google's general counsel, and Richard Salgado, Google's director for law enforcement and information security, in a blog post announcing the initiatives.

The companies are expected to detail their efforts further during a series of congressional hearings scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.

It's happened before

A scene from the video game Mortal Kombat.

Titles like the fighting game Mortal Kombat, released in 1992, were criticized for their violence.

Midway Games

This isn't the first time an industry started self-regulating in hopes of avoiding Washington's ire.

The best example may be the video game industry, which was heavily criticized after a game called Night Trap was released for Sega's video game console in 1992. In it, you play a special agent watching over teenage girls in a house. Using "live" surveillance footage, you trigger traps to thwart anyone coming for the girls.

Night Trap, along with the gruesome fighting game Mortal Kombat, became a focus for Washington lawmakers concerned about the popularity of these lifelike, yet violent games.

Before the December 1993 hearings, the video game industry created the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which was tasked with designating what games were best for which audience, from "everyone" up to "adults only."

"I had hoped for more," Sen. Joseph Lieberman told The New York Times at the time. "I had hoped the industry would adopt a code according to which they would simply stop producing some of the worst stuff, in terms of violence and sexual content."

Today, the ESRB says 86 percent of parents with children who play games are aware of its system, with 73 percent saying they check ratings before buying a title.

History's lessons

The difference this time around is that the tech industry has been implicated in a high-profile scandal that's being investigated by the Department of Justice and includes former members of President Trump's inner circle.

Earlier this week, special prosecutor Robert Mueller released documents charging Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman, and Rick Gates, Manafort's former business associate, with money laundering, conspiracy against the US, false statements and other crimes.

Meanwhile, Facebook, Twitter and Google are doing all they can to show Congress they take these issues seriously.

"We are in a new world. It is a new challenge for internet communities to deal with nation states attempting to subvert elections," Zuckerberg wrote in September. "But if that's what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion."

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