Senators blast Google for missing hearing on foreign influence operations

As Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg faced the Senate Intelligence Committee today, Google was noticeably absent, following a heated back-and-forth between the company and committee leadership in the days leading up to the hearing. The result was an empty chair for Google and a number of complaints from committee members.

“Sheryl and Jack, I’m glad you’re here,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) in his opening remarks. “I’m disappointed that Google decided against sending the right senior-level executive to what I truly expect to be a productive discussion.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) put the absence in even harsher terms. “There’s an empty chair next to you from Google, they’re not here,” said Rubio. “Maybe it’s because they’re arrogant.”

Google had offered to send chief legal officer and senior vice president of global policy Kent Walker, who submitted public testimony in advance of the hearing. But the committee declined the offer and refused to enter Walker’s testimony into the record. As Chairman Burr explained to reporters, “I told them I wasn’t accepting the senior vice president.”

Committee leadership continued to push for a higher-level executive in the days before the hearing. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) specifically called for co-founder Larry Page to appear, but no arrangement was reached.

At the hearing, Warner specifically called out Google for its failure to send a high-level executive to speak to the issue. “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 an opening statement, before listing all the ways Google products had been implicated in foreign interference.

I know our members have a series of difficult questions about structural vulnerabilities on a number of Google’s platforms that we will need answered. From Google Search, which continues to have problems surfacing absurd conspiracies, to YouTube, where Russian-backed disinformation agents promoted hundreds of divisive videos, to Gmail, where state-sponsored operatives attempt countless hacking attempts, Google has an immense responsibility in this space. Given its size and influence, I would have thought the leadership at Google would want to demonstrate how seriously it takes these challenges and to lead this important public discussion.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) also had harsh words for Google, calling out the company for backing away from its Project Maven collaboration with the US Military, as well as reports that Google is developing a censorship-friendly search engine to be deployed in China.

“Perhaps Google didn’t send a senior executive today because they’ve recently taken actions such as terminating cooperation with the American military…at the very same time that they continue to cooperate the Chinese communist party,” Cotton said. “Perhaps they didn’t send a witness to answer these questions because there is no answer to those questions.”

Tech executives’ willingness to appear before government committees has become a contentious issue in recent months, as lawmakers in the US and Europe come to terms with platforms’ broad influence on society. Mark Zuckerberg agreed to appear before Congress in March after months of escalating pressure over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but he has declined to appear for similar hearings in the UK.

Update 12:10PM ET: Updated with comments from Sen. Cotton.