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Senators aim to call Facebook, Google, Twitter to hearings

Legislators are taking closer looks at big tech companies

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the Senate judiciary and commerce committees on Capitol Hill over social media data breach, on April 10, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the Senate judiciary and commerce committees on Capitol Hill over social media data breach, on April 10, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner said he and Chairman Richard Burr soon will be calling for a public hearing and hope to get the CEOs of Facebook, Alphabet’s Google and Twitter to answer questions about their companies’ relationships with Chinese telecommunications companies.

Warner, D-Va., asked Alphabet in a letter Thursday about its partnerships with device makers Huawei Technologies and Xiaomi Corp., probing whether user data was stored on phones or allowed on the Chinese companies’ servers and how storage agreements were monitored and enforced.

“The possibility of Chinese vendors with documented ties to the Chinese Communist Party having access to” interfaces that could give them access to user data from Alphabet subsidiaries “raises serious national security concerns,” Warner wrote.

He also sent a similar letter to Twitter.

Lawmakers in the United States and elsewhere increasingly are scrutinizing big tech companies, particularly over how they collect reams of personal data from their users and what they do with it.

Warner said he was happy he wasn’t part of a hearing earlier this year with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, when many senators showed they didn’t know a lot about social media or how the tech companies gather and store private data.

“I think now we’ve got a lot more information,” Warner said.

Warner and Burr previously have talked about holding the social media hearing in relation to their probe concerning Russian influence during the presidential election in 2016.

But Warner also has asked Google and Twitter if they had similar deals with Chinese technology companies that Facebook since has disclosed. Huawei said it never collected or stored Facebook user data.

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Warner also asked Google for information about a partnership with Tencent Holdings, operator of China’s largest social messaging service WeChat.

In January, Google and Tencent struck a patent-sharing deal and agreed to team up on developing future technology.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier that members of Congress have begun scrutinizing part of Google’s Android operating system partnership with Huawei.

Google declined to comment and Twitter didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment.

Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, who led the House Intelligence Committee’s probe into Russian election interference, is among congressional Republicans now pressing for more information on the Google-Huawei ties, said his spokeswoman.

“I’m concerned across the board that Americans don’t understand what’s being done with their personal data,” the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said. “Obviously they are learning now that Facebook and certainly Google are using their data as part of their business model to make money.”

Along with existing trade tensions between the United States and China, the tech companies’ relationships with Huawei are drawing added scrutiny because the United States considers the Chinese company a security risk.

Congress has barred the Pentagon from buying Huawei gear — along with ZTE — citing the companies’ connections to the Chinese government and the potential for intellectual-property theft and spying.

Huawei is a “Chinese national-security threat to the United States and any collaboration there is a problem,” Sen. Cornyn said.

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Huawei, China’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment, was founded in 1988 by former Chinese army officer Ren Zhengfei.

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