Commentary: As Facebook, Google and Twitter gear up for Nov. 1 congressional hearings on election-related controversies, here’s some advice: Don’t argue (too much) with members of Congress, don’t be arrogant jerks, and definitely don’t say anything that might later prove untrue.
I propose a mantra for Facebook, Google and Twitter as they gear up for congressional hearings on election-related digital mischief: Don’t be Yahoo.
This is good advice in general. But I’m referring to the checkered history of technology executives giving public testimony to Congress, from Bill Gates’ awkward defense of Microsoft’s alleged monopoly in the 1990s to Yahoo’s grilling over its role in the imprisonment of a Chinese political dissident a decade later. Yes, when techies go to Washington, D.C., it doesn’t always end well.
These kinds of hearings tend to be no-win situations in the first place. Typically, something terrible has happened, and legislators want to extract a pound of flesh from those in the hot seat, whether they’re technology executives, bank CEOs or the former chief of Equifax.
Still, I will remind Silicon Valley of the cardinal rules for its big day on Nov. 1 in front of the House and Senate intelligence committees: Don’t argue (too much) with members of Congress, don’t be arrogant jerks, and definitely don’t say anything that might later prove untrue. Oh, and don’t blame journalists and lecture others that they don’t understand how hard it is to fix your company’s problems.
The worst possible outcome is what happened to Yahoo a decade ago as Congress was looking into how U.S. technology companies helped countries restrict human rights. Yahoo had turned over to Chinese officials emails and other online records of a journalist, Shi Tao, who was sentenced to prison for 10 years in 2005 for subversive activities.
Yahoo’s top lawyer initially told Congress the company didn’t know the nature of China’s investigation of Shi when it turned over information about him. The company later acknowledged it had in fact learned officials were pursuing him for a common charge against political dissidents, but Yahoo didn’t tell legislators once it discovered its previous disclosures were incorrect.
Needless to say, this upset members of Congress. “While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies,” California Democrat Tom Lantos memorably told Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and another executive at a 2007 hearing. Yang publicly apologized to Shi’s mother.
That incident had hangover effects. Yahoo sold control of its China operations. And negative publicity about Yahoo’s release of Shi’s information helped fuel continuing controversies over technology companies’ cooperation with restrictive governments in China and elsewhere.
Trips to Capitol Hill don’t always have a bad end. During Apple CEO Tim Cook’s 2013 appointment with senators looking into U.S. companies’ tax-avoidance strategies, he got some pats on the back and fielded tech-support questions.
“Why the hell do I have to keep updating my apps on my iPhone all the time,” Arizona Sen. John McCain asked the boss of the world’s most valuable public company. (Sen. McCain later tweeted to thank Apple for a software feature that allowed apps to update automatically.) Missouri Sen.Claire McCaskill declared her love for Apple. Twice.
D.C.’s current probing of internet misinformation is also an important test of U.S. tech superpowers’ abilities to navigate politically charged atmospheres in their home country and beyond.
The companies are dealing with an unprecedented array of questions about their power and influence — from whether they exacerbate economic inequality to how they balance privacy versus safety, stifle business competition and become unwitting megaphones for hate.
The risks of backlash grow with the technology industry’s power. As of last week, seven of the 10 most valuable public companies in the world are in the technology industry.
Whoever Facebook and Google send to the House and Senate next month, it’s a good guess that no member of Congress will profess their love for the embattled tech giants.