Nation & World

Attorney general to review social media platforms

Announcement comes after Twitter, Facebook appear at congressional hearings

Zuma Press/TNS

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, spoke with congressional committees on Wednesday.
Zuma Press/TNS Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, spoke with congressional committees on Wednesday.
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Lawmakers on Capitol Hill questioned top executives at Facebook and Twitter on Wednesday about their companies’ ability to thwart foreign interference, and hinted that industry regulations may be coming.

The “size and reach of your platforms demand that we, as policymakers, do our job, to ensure proper oversight, transparency and protections for American users and for our democratic institutions,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in his opening remarks.

“The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end.”

After the hearing, the Department of Justice issued a statement saying Attorney General Jeff Sessions would meet with a number of state attorneys general this month to discuss “a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms.”

Shares of Twitter fell nearly 5 percent after the hearing concluded. Facebook shares declined about 1.5 percent.

The hearing — attended by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, and Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey — was designed to address foreign influence but included a sprawling list of grievances against the nation’s biggest and most influential social networks.

Senators asked about user privacy, misinformation and services in nondemocratic countries.

Google was conspicuously absent from the hearing. The Senate committee had invited Larry Page, chief executive of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. But Google declined and countered by offering to send its chief legal officer, Kent Walker.

The committee rejected Page’s replacement and Google submitted written testimony instead that focused on security measures.

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Members of the committee wanted to ask about reports that Google was working on a censored search engine for China.

The company has been criticized, too, for its handling of YouTube, which also has been exploited for foreign propaganda.

“I’m deeply disappointed that Google, one of the most influential digital platforms in the world, chose not to send its own top corporate leadership to engage this committee,” Warner said in his prepared remarks.

Other senators also expressed disappointment in Google, which was represented at the hearing by an empty chair.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., used the company’s absence as the impetus to ask Sandberg and Dorsey about whether they retain their company values in foreign markets with nondemocratic leadership.

He cited Twitter’s willingness to block government critics in Turkey and reports that Facebook had worked on a program that would restrict certain content depending on a user’s geography.

“We support our principles all around the world,” Sandberg responded.

Dorsey said Twitter has to comply with local laws. He said people in Turkey still are able to read banned accounts by using virtual private network software.

Dorsey faced the House Energy and Commerce Committee later in the day to address charges of political bias on Twitter.

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Conservatives, led by President Donald Trump, have accused Twitter of stifling right-wing voices on the platform.

Twitter vehemently has denied censoring conservatives — and has even angered critics on the left for allowing InfoWars host Alex Jones back onto the social network after a brief suspension.

“I want to start by making something clear: We don’t consider political viewpoints, perspectives, or party affiliation in any of our policies or enforcement decisions,” Dorsey said during his opening remarks. “Impartiality is our guiding principle.”

However, Dorsey gave some credence to the belief that Twitter was suppressing conservative accounts in its search field — a charge dubbed “shadow banning.”

“Recently we failed our intended impartiality,” Dorsey said. “Our algorithms were unfairly filtering 600,000 accounts, including some members of Congress, from our search auto-complete and latest results. We fixed it.”

Dorsey said the company’s algorithm did this because it weighed the “behavior” of people following the accounts.

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