Senators blast Google executives for not showing up to hearings on election meddling

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence left a chair empty after Google executives declined invites to testify at a  hearing on foreign meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Pat Anastasi | CNBC
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence left a chair empty after Google executives declined invites to testify at a  hearing on foreign meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Sometimes an empty chair can speak volumes.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence intentionally set up a unoccupied seat to shame Alphabet at Wednesday’s hearing on foreign meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The Committee wanted either Alphabet CEO Larry Page or Google chief executive Sundar Pichai to testify alongside Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, but the company offered its top lawyer and SVP of global affairs, Kent Walker, instead. That decision rankled Committee leaders Sen Mark Warner, D-VA, and Sen. Mark Burr, R-NA, who rejected the substitution, hence the pointedly vacant chair.

“I’m disappointed Google decided against sending the right senior level executive,” Sen. Richard Burr, the chair of the committee, said in his opening remarks.

Vice chair of the committee Sen. Mark Warner echoed Burr’s statement.

“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.

While the committee wouldn’t accept Google’s counsel in lieu of Page or Pichai, Walker submitted testimony anyway and will be in Washington this week taking meetings and giving briefings, according to a Tuesday blog post. The testimony outlined Google’s new guidelines for political ad disclosures and states that Google continues to remove bad actors, like the Kremlin-affiliated Internet Research Agency, that try to mislead users. However, the Center for Accountability published a report on Tuesday that seemed to highlight the challenges of keeping deceptive content off of Google’s platforms: The organization posed as the IRA and was still able to buy and target politically divisive advertising.

Politically, it’s been a rough summer for Google. In July, the European Union slapped Google with a $5 billion fine for antritrust abuse of its mobile operating system, Android. At the beginning of August, Google drew both internal and external criticism after its plans for a censored search app in China leaked to the press.

Then, at the end of the month, President Donald Trump accused Google of liberal bias, including the false assertion that it had promoted all of Obama’s State of the Union speeches, but not his.

By not showing up for the Senate hearing, Google may have avoided answering some uncomfortable questions. For example, Warner told Wired that he planned to question Google about its plans in China. However, by not showing up at all, the ugly image of that empty seat may do more harm than anything Page or Pichai could have said.

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