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Senators express 'outrage' and 'disappointment' at Google top execs for skipping hearing

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Facebook (FB) COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter (TWTR) CEO Jack Dorsey took to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding their companies’ efforts to counter disinformation campaigns by foreign governments seeking to influence U.S. elections.

Google (GOOG, GOOGL) leadership, however, was conspicuously absent from the hearing much to the committee’s ire. Instead, the company chose to submit written testimony. As a result, Google appeared to send the message that the meeting was unimportant. Of course, skipping the hearing spared the company from having to comment on its attempts to develop a new search engine for the Chinese market, as well.

“I’m disappointed Google decided against sending the right senior level executive to participate in what I truly expect to be a productive discussion,” Committee Chairman Senator Richard Burr (R, NC) said in his opening statement.

The Intelligence Committee originally sought to bring Larry Page, CEO of Google parent Alphabet, in to testify, though the company decided against that or having Google CEO Sundar Pichai speak. Instead, Google’s Chief Legal Officer and Head of Global Affairs Kent Walker submitted the company’s testimony to the committee.

According to TechCrunch, Google informed the Intelligence Committee in July that it would be sending Walker to the hearing, and was under the impression at that time that doing so would be sufficient. The senators clearly felt differently.

Bashing the big G

Vice Chairman Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) hit Google especially hard saying, “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. Because I know our members have a series of difficult questions about structural vulnerabilities on a number of Google’s platforms that we’ll need answers for.”

Warner continued, “From Google Search, which continues to have problems surfacing absurd conspiracies, to YouTube where Russian-backed disinformation agents promoted hundreds of divisive emails, to Gmail where state-sponsored operatives attempted countless hacking attempts, Google has an immense responsibility in this space. Given its size and influence I would have thought that leadership at Google would have wanted to demonstrate how seriously it takes these challenges and actually take a leadership role in this discussion.”

Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) said she wanted to express her “outrage” that Google was absent, while Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), questioned whether Google’s absence from the hearing was due to its own arrogance.

In his written testimony, Walker laid out how Google is fighting disinformation campaigns and where it is cooperating with government officials.

“We believe that we have a responsibility to prevent the misuse of our platforms and we take that very seriously,” Walker wrote in his testimony. “Google was founded with a mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. The abuse of the tools and platforms we build is antithetical to that mission.”

But those comments weren’t enough to save Google from the committee’s anger. On the flip side, senators repeatedly praised Sandberg and Dorsey for attending the meeting, and expressed their thanks for the work Facebook and Twitter have done to reduce the effectiveness of disinformation and interference campaigns from the likes of Russia and Iran.

In his written testimony submitted to the Intelligence Committee in November 2017, Walker explained that Google saw a relatively small amount of disinformation through YouTube compared to the vast amounts of content uploaded to the service.

Of course, by refusing to send its chief executives, Google and Alphabet managed to dodge any questions regarding the companies’ reported work on a new search engine for the Chinese market that would abide by the government’s strict censorship of topics ranging from freedom of speech and human rights to religion.

Both Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) questioned why Facebook and Twitter don’t do business in China — Sandberg and Dorsey responded that they are banned from the country. In July, Facebook briefly received approval to open an innovation center in the country, only to have the approval revoked in a matter of hours.

It’s not as though Google isn’t working to prevent election interference and disinformation, but by failing to have its highest-ranking leadership appear before the committee it appeared to take a backseat in the conversation.

Based on optics alone, having Page and Pichai sit out of the hearing makes it appears as though Google simply doesn’t take the matter of election interference and disinformation seriously. And while Walker says Google recognizes the importance of the committee’s work, actions often speak louder than words.

Still, the decision not to attend the meeting didn’t appear to affect Google’s stock in the short-term. Facebook’s stock was down 1.6% in midday trading, while Twitter was down 4.7%. Google, meanwhile, was down 1.2%

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Email Daniel Howley at dhowley@oath.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley. Follow Yahoo Finance on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn