U.S. senators hammer Facebook for power
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[November 01, 2017]
By David Ingram
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. senators on
Tuesday pressed Facebook Inc's chief lawyer on why the company did not
catch 2016 election ads bought using Russian rubles, why its
investigation of them took so long and how much it knows about its 5
Democrats and Republicans at the Senate crime subcommittee hearing fired
questions for much of two hours at Facebook General Counsel Colin
Stretch, who said that in retrospect the company should have done more.
"In hindsight, we should have had a broader lens. There are signals we
missed," Stretch said under questioning from Democratic Senator Al
Franken about how the company missed political ads bought with Russian
money. Stretch called the Russia-based ads "reprehensible" for their
The hearing marked the first time tech executives have appeared publicly
before U.S. lawmakers on the Russia matter, and the tone represented a
dramatic shift in fortunes for Silicon Valley, which for years has grown
accustomed to favorable regulatory treatment in the United States.
Lawyers for Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc's Google also faced questions
at the hearing about how Russians used their services, but Facebook drew
the bulk of senators' ire because of its unique role in targeted
marketing on the internet.
Facebook has broader reach than the smaller Twitter network, and it
offers more powerful targeting capabilities than Google.
"I suspect that your advertising department has watched the profits go
up," Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy told Stretch, who responded that
Facebook was committed to rooting out accounts that use fake names.
Lawyers for the three companies were scheduled to return to Capitol Hill
on Wednesday for two more hearings on Russia ad spending.
The Russian government has denied it intended to influence the 2016
presidential election, in which Republican Donald Trump defeated
Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Facebook, in a series of disclosures over two months, has said that
people in Russia bought at least 3,000 U.S. political ads and published
another 80,000 Facebook posts that were seen by as many as 126 million
Americans over two years.
Senators said they could not understand the timing of Facebook's
"Why has it taken Facebook 11 months to come forward and help us
understand the scope of this problem?" Democratic Senator Chris Coons
Stretch responded that, when U.S. spy agencies alleged in January that
Russians meddled in last year's election, "we weren't sitting around."
The company over the following months launched an investigation and
reported the results, he said.
[to top of second column]
Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Dick
Durbin (D-IL) listen to testimony to the Senate Judiciary Crime and
Terrorism Subcommittee hearing on on "ways to combat and reduce the
amount of Russian propaganda and extremist content online," on
Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan
Facebook has also announced steps to change how it treats political
ads. It said it is hiring 1,000 more people to review ads, compiling
a publicly searchable archive of political ads beginning next year
and requiring more information about the identity of election
Coons said he wished the tech companies had sent their top
executives on Tuesday rather than in-house lawyers.
Republican Senator John Kennedy told Stretch that he doubted
Facebook's ability to stop people overseas from buying U.S. election
ads. U.S. law bars election spending by non-Americans.
"You've got 5 million advertisers and you're going to tell me that
you're able to trace the origin of all those advertisements?"
Kennedy asked Stretch.
The Facebook lawyer responded that there was little the company
could do if a foreign advertiser used a U.S. shell corporation.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, chairman of the crime
subcommittee, said he wanted to help the tech companies, but he also
pressed Stretch on whether Iran and North Korea could try to do what
Russia did in the United States.
Stretch responded: "Certainly potentially. The internet is
Hanging over Facebook, Google and Twitter is the threat of
legislation that would extend rules governing political advertising
on television, radio and satellite to also cover social media.
The companies have responded with proposals for self-regulation,
saying they would create their own public archives of
Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar told witnesses on Tuesday that
self-regulation would lead to a "patchwork" of databases and that a
uniform system would be better for voters.
(Reporting by David Ingram in Washington; Additional reporting by
Dustin Volz in Washington and Paresh Dave in San Francisco; Editing
by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)
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