How a Silent Empty Chair Spoke Volumes About Big Tech's Growing Chasm

How a Silent Empty Chair Spoke Volumes About Big Tech's Growing Chasm

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey testify without their Google counterpart before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on September 5, 2018.

SourceJIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

Because tech giants are struggling with public accountability.

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As they were sworn in before the Senate Intelligence Committee, two of the witnesses stood with hands raised to take the oath. In the center, Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook chief operating officer and working woman hero of Lean In fame. To the right, Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, his forehead creased and his full beard showing a hint of gray. And on the left, the third witness … which stole the show because it could not stand. It was an empty chair, given a mic should it speak and a glass of water should it thirst, with a placard reading the name of its absent owner: “Google.”

Sometimes the greatest witness is one that chooses to give no witness at all. Such is the case of the empty chair. Yes, those present gave their best defenses of privacy-exploiting practices, insufficient security safeguards and mixed results in stemming the spread of fake news. Sandberg described an “arms race” between Facebook and those who would abuse the platform for personal aims, and Dorsey defended Twitter’s status as a “public square” that nonetheless found itself “unprepared and ill-equipped” to deal with myriad woes of propaganda, misinformation and foreign electioneering. But even though Dorsey declared himself “someone of very few words, and typically pretty shy” in his live-tweeted opening statement, it was the witness with no words at all that spoke volumes — about Google parent company Alphabet, its absentee CEO Larry Page and the tense relationship between technology giants and public accountability.

Hell hath no fury like a senator scorned while TV cameras are on, and the would-be interrogators ripped in. Florida Republican Marco Rubio wondered if Google’s absence was “arrogance,” and North Carolina Republican Richard Burr, the committee chairman, declared he was “disappointed Google decided against sending the right senior-level executive” after the company offered (and the committee rejected) its top lawyer instead. “What is under attack is the idea that business as usual is good enough,” he said while tearing into the symbolism of the plastic provocateur before him.

In an age of extreme political tribalism, the mutual concern over tech companies is glaringly bipartisan.

“Google has an immense responsibility in this space,” said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the committee, who was no kinder to our padded protagonist, accusing Google Search of surfacing conspiracy theories and YouTube and Gmail of being hacked and abused by foreign agents. In written testimony submitted to the committee, Google insisted it was working to identify and remove foreign actors, pointing also to initiatives to improve cybersecurity and verification around election ads and campaigns.

By the end of the grilling, the empty Google chair joined a history of infamous vacant vestibules, from 1924 Progressive vice-presidential nominee Burton K. Wheeler taking on an absent Calvin Coolidge to Clint Eastwood’s debate partner at the 2012 Republican National Convention.

The supposed takeaway, five months after Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before this same panel was panned as an apology tour with little substance, was that Big Tech leaders have learned their lesson — and their contrition is resulting in real action (empty chair notwithstanding). But the question, as it has been ever since the 2016 election dramatically laid bare their deficiencies, is whether the public trusts their promises. The stock market didn’t on Wednesday, although traders were kinder to the empty chair than to the two present witnesses. Alphabet shares dropped by just 1 percent in the tech-heavy NASDAQ at the closing bell, while Facebook fell more than 2 percent and Twitter dropped 6 percent.

In an age of extreme political tribalism, the mutual concern over tech companies is glaringly bipartisan. Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have accused Twitter of “shadow banning” conservatives — a process of making social media posts visible only to the user, rather than outright banning them — and Facebook of political bias in its newsfeed algorithm. Both companies have denied the allegations and have said they would consider tweaking their formulas to assuage such fears.

Meanwhile, at the August Netroots Nation conference in New Orleans, whole panels of progressives were dedicated to tech’s worrisome future. “The connection between tech-enabled surveillance and offline hate is fueling online attacks against Black and Brown bodies,” said Mariana Ruiz Firmat, a community organizer who led one such panel. “The internet we have is built by White men, techno-optimists like Mark Zuckerberg, who believe the internet is neutral. We know that the internet is far from neutral.”

In the end, though, a filled seat does provide more answers than an empty one. Dorsey said Twitter plans to better label bots used to spread misinformation or influence public debate. Meanwhile, Sandberg, under questioning, admitted Facebook had a moral and legal obligation to take down accounts that incite violence. Both agreed personal digital privacy could be a matter of national security — a key admission that could expand the government’s role in regulating social media data-collection efforts. The chair declined to comment.

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