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Senators grill tech companies about Russian interference, but don’t get very far

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A bipartisan group of Senators grilled tech companies today about how Russians used their platforms to interfere in the 2016 election, calling on them to better monitor abuse in the future. A subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary committee challenged top lawyers from Facebook, Google, and Twitter on the potential use of shell companies to hide advertiser identities, the malicious use of bot networks, and the limited capabilities of existing ad review policies. But despite the bipartisan appeal of criticizing the tech companies in public, it’s not clear what, if anything, will come of the critiques.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter sent top legal officials to Washington this week for a series of hearings about Russian interference in 2016 election. In prepared statements, which leaked yesterday, executives pledged their commitment to fighting foreign interference while disclosing that the problem was bigger than they had previously admitted.

Senators asked the lawyers a wide range of questions, largely focused on Facebook. In perhaps the most pressing exchange of the day, Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana asked Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch how the company could possibly keep track of all five million advertisers on its platform. “You don’t have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is, do you, today?” Kennedy said. “Right now? Not your commitment — I’m asking about your ability.”

In one of the more heated exchanges of the day, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) pressed Stretch on why the company had allowed the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency to buy political ads using Russian currency. “How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them in the personal connections with its user, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads, paid for in rubles, were coming from Russia?”

Franken called on Facebook to reject the use of foreign currencies to buy political ads. But Stretch demurred. “It’s relatively easy for bad actors to switch currencies,” Stretch said. “So it’s a signal, but not enough.”

But despite their raised voices, the senators got little out of tech company executives beyond their prepared statements, other than a commitment to continue working with senators. In response to a question about whether Facebook believed it had any influence over the outcome of the 2016 election, Stretch said only, “We’re not well positioned to know why any one person or an entire electorate voted the way that it did.”

Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill, known as the Honest Ads Act, that would require new disclosures for online political advertising modeled on requirements for print and broadcast media. During today’s hearing, one of the authors, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, asked tech executives whether they would commit to supporting her bill. None would.

In an effort to get ahead of federal regulation, tech companies have announced plans to regulate themselves. Mark Zuckerberg laid out a nine-point plan for limiting foreign actors’ ability to influence elections, including new requirements that political ads be labeled and available for public inspection. Twitter announced it would build a “transparency center” where political ads bought on its platform can be publicly viewed.

Today’s hearing was the first of three this week for the tech companies. Tomorrow, the executives will appear before the Select Intelligence Committees of the House and Senate, where they are expected to face similar questions.

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