Congress grills Facebook, Twitter, Google on shells hiding election meddlers – TechCrunch
How can internet giants know that innocent-seeming U.S. companies arenâ€™t actually shell vehicles for malicious foreign actors to buy ads to interfere with elections? The short answer is they canâ€™t, and that drew questioning from a Congressional probe today into Facebook, Twitter and Google being used to manipulate the 2016 presidential election.
The hearing saw Facebookâ€™s general counsel Colin Stretch dodge whether Facebook supports the new Honest Ads bill, instead touting the self-regulation itâ€™s implementing. Googleâ€™s Richard Salgado affirmed that the company sees itself as a technology platform, not a media company or newspaper.
And Senator Ted Cruz pressed Facebook about whether it was politically neutral, and if it sways discourse â€œin ways consistent with the political views of your employees,â€ which Iâ€™ve noted leans Democrat judging by rampant cheering by employees for Democratic talking points during Barack Obamaâ€™s townhall at Facebook HQ in 2011.
Losing the shell game
Perhaps the most telling moment of the hearing came when one member of the committee questioning the companiesâ€™ spokespeople asked:
â€œHow do you deal with the problem of a legitimate and lawful but phony American shell corporation, one that calls itself say â€˜America for Puppies and Prosperity,â€™ that has a drop box as its address, and a $50 million checkÂ in its check book that itâ€™s using to spend to manipulate election outcomes?â€
Twitterâ€™s general counsel Sean Edgett admitted â€œIÂ think thatâ€™s a problem. Weâ€™re continuing to look into â€˜how do you get to know your clientâ€™ . . . and believe that weâ€™ll have to figure out a good process to understand who those customers actually are that are signing the contracts with Twitter to run ads.â€
The committee pressed further about Twitterâ€™s shortcoming here. â€œYou admit that if you trace it all the way back to an American corporation, letâ€™s call it â€˜America for Puppies and Prosperityâ€™ and itâ€™s actually a shell corporation, you donâ€™t actually know whoâ€™s behind it?â€ the committee asked. â€œIt could be Vladimir Putin, it could be a big powerful American special interest, it could be the North Koreans or the Iranians. You need to be able to penetrate the obscurity of the shell corporation, correct?â€
Edgett responded â€œYeah, weâ€™re working on the best approach to getting to know the clients and getting to know whoâ€™s behind the entities that are signing up for advertising.â€
Later, Senator John Kennedy laid into the tech representatives, saying â€œSometimes your power scares me.â€ He went on to ream Facebookâ€™s general counsel Colin Stretch â€œfor having 5 million advertisers,â€ which Kennedy said he thought was a quantity impossible to police. â€œYou donâ€™t have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is, do you?â€ Kennedy asked. Stretch admitted Facebook didnâ€™t, and it would likely be cost-prohibitive to drill down further into their identities.
Herein lies one of the toughest ongoing challenges for Twitter, Facebook and Google. They must either erect barriers to advertising that could deter innocent businesses and cost too much to administer and maintain, or they have to largely take advertisers at face value.
Facebook has written that it plans to â€œrequire more thorough documentation from advertisers who want to run U.S. federal election-related ads. Potential advertisers will have to confirm the business or organization they represent before they can buy ads.â€ But if those identified businesses are merely shell companies, that rule doesnâ€™t do much good.
In the hearingâ€™s second session, when asked about shell companies, Alliance For Securing Democracy fellow Clint Watts said, â€œIâ€™m actually surprised that the Russians made the mistake of buying ads directly through the Internet Research Agency,â€ rather than through a shell company. He called this a mistake by the Kremlin, indicating future election interference could be even tougher to trace. And when asked if he thought the tech giants can currently identify who their advertisers truly are, Watts bluntly said â€œNo.â€
This issue of advertiser identity and how deep tech platforms are required to investigate it could emerge as key to whether these companies are allowed to self-regulate or whether the government will step in.
Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch
Write a Reply or Comment:
You must be logged in to post a comment.