After Zuckerberg hearings, Congress broadens focus to Google, Twitter

Facebook's CEO went to Washington, in part, to mend relationships with lawmakers. But Congress also has the other tech giants in its sights.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
4 min read
US Capitol Building and Dome (East Front) - Washington DC
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After months of intense pressure, lawmakers finally got their wish: They gave Mark Zuckerberg a public roasting. The CEO of Facebook testified this week in two congressional hearings, which lasted nearly ten hours over two days.

The hearings, before both the Senate and the House, appeared to be a win for Facebook. Observers noted that Zuckerberg performed strongly, appeared confident and competent, and didn't tick off any lawmakers too badly. Facebook's stock, which had taken a tumble amid a major data privacy scandal, even rebounded during the proceedings.

That may be good for Facebook, but it could mean new headaches for other companies. Namely, Google and Twitter.

Zuckerberg landed in the hot seat specifically because of a controversy over Cambridge Analytica, a digital consultancy with ties to the Trump presidential campaign that harvested the data of up to 87 million Facebook users without their permission.


Now that Zuckerberg has testified before lawmakers, Google's Sundar Pichai (pictured) and Twitter's Jack Dorsey may get more pressure to work with Congress. 

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The scandal has shone a spotlight on the trove of data the company has on all of us, and how ripe it is for abuse. (Facebook uses the data to sell ads.) But the social network is far from the only tech company that has tons of personal information on people all over the world. Google, for example, stores information on you based on things like your search history, Gmail account and Google Maps queries. Both Google and Twitter are ad-based as well, and they've been under fire from lawmakers before for abuse on their platforms.

Google didn't respond to a request for comment. Twitter declined to comment.

Last November, all three companies testified before Congress regarding the integrity of their platforms. But none of them sent their CEOs. Instead, they tasked their top lawyers with enduring the public scolding. The move didn't sit well with lawmakers who wanted answers from the very top of the companies and not polished lawyers who know just what to say.

It was a diss to Congress, but it was a united diss. Now that Zuckerberg has sat in the hot seat -- a gesture of atonement as much as anything else -- you can expect lawmakers to ramp up scrutiny of Google and Twitter.

"A lot of the concerns raised in the hearings this week were around privacy," Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, told CNET this week after the Zuckerberg hearings. "Obviously that is a huge issue and one that not only Facebook needs to address, but Twitter needs to address, in a sense Google and YouTube as a single entity need to address."

For the Senate hearing, Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley also invited Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to testify. Neither ended up attending. 

All three companies have been in hot water with Congress not only over privacy debacles, but over their role in the 2016 US presidential election. Russian trolls abused their platforms to try to meddle in the election and sow discord among Americans.

But on all accounts, Facebook has taken the brunt of the blame. Not anymore.

"It's overdue," said Brian Solis, an analyst at Altimeter Group, a research firm. "Google knows more about you than Facebook ever will."

Not just hearings

It's not necessarily that lawmakers want to drag Pichai and Dorsey to Washington for their own hearings, but they do want the companies to work with Congress more to protect consumers.

"It's far better to be proactive than to be hauled in front of Congress," Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, told CNET this week. "So I would encourage companies to reach out and establish a relationship and be proactive on the issues."

The pressure won't only be in the form of congressional testimony. Congress will also push Google and Twitter to support regulation.

Just like Zuckerberg was the first big CEO to testify for the sins of social media, he was the first to endorse specific legislation that would give the government some oversight on their advertising operations.

Days before Zuckerberg's hearings, he announced his support for the Honest Ads act, a Senate bill by Warner and Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, that would require tech companies to disclose how online political ads were targeted and how much they cost. Soon after Facebook threw its support behind it, Twitter's Dorsey did too.

Now the only holdout is Google.

"Senator Warner and I have also called on Google and the other platforms to do the same," Klobuchar said during Zuckerberg's testimony. "So memo to the rest of you, we have to get this done or we're going to have a patchwork of ads, and I hope that you'll be working with us to pass this bill. Is that right?"

Congress is also leaning on tech companies in other ways. During the Senate hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, called on Zuckerberg to help write legislation, asking him to "submit to us some proposed regulations."

After the hearings, Warner called on all three companies to work with Congress on matters of national security. He said he'd like "Zuckerberg -- and for that matter, we want to see him, we want to see Jack Dorsey, we want to see Sergey [Brin, a Google co-founder] -- to come back in and talk to the intelligence committee on national security issues."

He continued, "Because this is a problem that's not going to go away."

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