Are you a Big Tech tycoon who just found yourself in the crosshairs of another pesky federal investigation? Having trouble mastering those perfectly polite yet completely opaque statements for your Congressional hearing? Or perhaps your fibs about your toxic business model have started to lose some of their luster on the witness stand, and it’s getting more and more difficult to kick those darn Senators’ questions down the road to the ol’ legal team…?
Breathe easy. Whatever scrutiny has befallen you, know that you have somewhere to turn. Two of the world’s largest internet platforms have already designed a sea chart to help you navigate these stormy waters.
Facebook and Google have been through the very same thing – many times over! Fortunately (for them, not for society), they have also had the fortitude – and the tens of millions of dollars in their public relations wallet – to get through it with barely a scratch.
Along the way, they have honed the fine art of misleading Congress and shirking their civic duty. But it’s not like they have made this practice a secret. On the contrary, they have refined their techniques right out in the open, leaving their tasty morsels right on the table for you to make your own.
Let’s review three of them now. After all, you never know when you might need to stare down a subcommittee, blink twice robotically, and claim with a completely straight face that your company doesn’t profit from harmful misinformation…
1) No Need to Prep – Deflect!
Appearances by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a Congressional hearing have become about as common as new Facebook data leaks. But when he showed up for his first big one – a two-day marathon in April 2018 – it was still a newsworthy event, and there was still just a glint of light behind Zuck’s deadened android stare.
That might have been because he was armed with a fail-safe way to avoid any real accountability – simply dodge any difficult questions by promising to answer them later. In fact, Zuck tossed out the ol’ “I’ll have my team follow up with you after this” 29 times during the proceedings, on topics ranging from the then-still-sizzling Cambridge Analytica scandal to Russian misinformation.
This incessant deflection served two valuable purposes for Facebook’s brand image: It let Zuckerberg a) avoid screwing up the answers to any tough questions on national television (it’s difficult to give an embarrassing answer when you don’t give one at all); and b) show he is not actually a soulless Silicon Valley automaton by flashing a tone of sincere regard for the existential threats his company poses to humanity.
Oh, he wants to consult with his trusted advisers so he can answer these reasonable questions properly at a later date? Maybe he is only deflecting because he cares about us after all?
Well, no. The majority of Zuckerberg’s follow-up promises were, as Observer put it, “nothing more than his lawyer-coached way of saying no or refusing to answer a question.” How’s that for respecting the U.S. Constitution’s Article I branch of government?
2) Don’t Hesitate – Conflate!
Is the legal protection that gives you a near-total liability shield in jeopardy because some ungrateful Members of Congress are tired of your toxic business model? Try conflating that immunity provision with a cherished American value that it has nothing to do with!
That’s what Big Tech loves to do in its endless fight to preserve internet safe-harbor laws such as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Written more than 25 years ago, the law excludes internet companies from liability related to the content on their sites. Facebook and Google work endlessly to put Section 230 on a golden pedestal, hailing it as the ultimate driver of free expression on their platforms.
Big Tech argues that if we were to hold them legally accountable for the terrible, toxic things their users do, the consequences for speech online could be disastrous – or in the words of Google CEO Sundar Pichai at this year’s March 25 Congressional hearing, “harming… free expression” itself.
In fact, there are thousands of media companies that receive no government protection under Section 230 – because they are known as “publishers” instead of “platforms.” (Explaining the distinction between these two terms would warrant an entirely separate blog, so for now, just take our word for it.)
These companies don’t meet the definition of who benefits from Section 230, and yet, free speech seems to flourish. That’s because “free” speech is not contingent on Section 230 – the internet companies just like to make it sound like it is. It’s actually a right found in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Were Section 230 to be modified, it wouldn’t “kill” free speech at Google or Facebook or anywhere else on the internet. But if Congress were to decide it’s time for those platforms to do something about the flow of hate speech, misinformation, and other toxic content on their platforms, they’d have to step up and take some action – just as a publisher would.
That would be bad for business at Google and Facebook, because their fortunes depend so much on selling advertising that capitalizes on “engagement” – and few things engage like hate and misinformation. But let’s be clear about one thing: This has nothing to do with free speech – and has everything to do with the platforms’ profits.
3) Omit, Omit, Omit!
You have probably heard the phrase “lying by omission.” It is the fine art of fostering a misconception by leaving out key facts from an otherwise correct answer. That way, the answerer isn’t technically lying, even if the part of the story they are leaving out is just as damning as any lie.
Big Tech companies are exceptional at this. They are the grandmasters of giving just enough information to sound like they are making a good-faith effort to answer the question at hand without actually touching on any of the stuff that would make them look worse than they already are.
Here’s a good example. Look at Google’s explanation for why it continues to refuse to offer creatives proper tools for protecting their copyrighted works on YouTube – even though they have developed a whole suite of them.
In written testimony for a December 2020 DMCA hearing, a Google executive asserted that creatives do have access to such tools. YouTube “[invests] significantly in technology, tools, and resources that prevent copyright infringement on our platforms,” the executive said.
“Everyone has access to YouTube’s Copyright Management Suite,” they trumpeted. And they’re right! This is a true statement! The only problem with it is that it omits revealing which tool most creatives actually have access to. Most creatives do not have access to YouTube’s effective copyright management tools, including the Content Verification Program.
Most creatives are locked in a desperate struggle to keep pirated versions of their works from appearing on the world’s most lucrative video platform. And while there may be a “suite” of tools, most creatives are given access to only one option: a cumbersome webform that must be filled out anew, each and every time their work gets uploaded to the site without their permission.
So, yes, Google does have a “suite” of tools available – but they’re only giving most creatives access to the broom closet. And it’s technically true that there is “a” YouTube copyright tool for every creative – but the whole truth is that, for most creatives, the tool offered to them blows.
So that’s a look at three of the innovative ways that Big Tech skirts the truth in dealing with Congress. With more pressure on them than ever before, they are sure to come up with plenty of additional ways.
Unfortunately for the platforms, Members of Congress are wise to these tactics – and standing up for the creatives being harmed by these platforms in the process.
For instance, Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) and sent a letter in March calling for Big Tech to voluntarily come to the table to discuss how they can help stem the piracy running rampant on their platforms. And, in August, Representatives Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY8) sent a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey pointing out his refusal to address the copyright infringement problems on his platform.
Thankfully, these Members and many of their colleagues have been holding Big Tech to account, but you should pay attention, too! Scrutinize everything Big Tech companies say. Take nothing at face value.
They didn’t become that rich and powerful while doing that much harm to society by telling the truth.