You may be forgiven for having thought that Wednesday's Big Tech CEO hearing--in which the top executives at Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook were scheduled to get grilled by Congress on antitrust and unfair competition issues--would be one of the must-see Hill events of the season. What could have been a teachable moment for students of American public policy quickly morphed into something that was mostly (although not entirely) an empty exercise. Given how much the hearing overall was focused on the merely performative--with so many members seeking primarily to score points for audiences on C-SPAN or at home--it's worth asking what kind of lessons could be learned from Wednesday's hearings. For me, the first lesson is clear: If you've managed to corral the top four of this country's CEOs for an afternoon of questioning--quite a coup de théâtre in itself--you must impose enough discipline on your committee members to keep their questions on the nominal subject of the hearing. Wednesday's hearing was convened by the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on antitrust.
Let's be honest about congressional hearings on technology policy issues. Often they devolve into political infighting among the members, coupled with opaque or even misleading responses from witnesses. And, of course, there is often a clear demonstration that some of the members simply do not know their stuff. We needn't look beyond Mark Zuckerberg's very first hearing before Congress to see this. In 2018, in a hearing that was scheduled in the immediate aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, certain members of Congress showed the Facebook chief executive their substantial lack of awareness about the way that Facebook--and other internet giants--works.
I like to think of myself as a person with long-term perspective, someone who doesn't easily succumb to the daily (hourly? It's harder, though, when even a socially-distanced plan for next week could disintegrate at any second, if COVID-19 cases continue their climb. How can we think about 2040 when August 2020 seems impossible to imagine? (I stole the subject line for this newsletter from Nathaniel Frank's great novel about calculating the odds of worst-case scenario disasters.) But I've come to realize, this is the perfect moment to think about the future, because the pandemic has given us a sped-up view of how the proverbial tomorrow comes to be. It's like experimental evolution research that uses lifeforms with much shorter lifespans to see how change happens over time.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society. Rushing to keep up with all this Russia news? On Friday, the Department of Justice announced the indictment of 12 of the country's intelligence officers on charges related to their alleged interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As April Glaser explains, the indictment sheds light on the mysterious "Guccifer 2.0"--that "lone hacker" who was really a group of Russian agents--and how, exactly, their meddling went down (hint: cryptocurrency played a role). As the Brennan Center's Lawrence Norden argues, the indictments also revealed that Russia's infiltration of U.S. election systems likely went deeper than we previously understood--and could get worse.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society. Executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday in another tech company hearing that revealed little, if any, new information. Though the hearing was meant to address "the content filtering practices of social media giants," presumably focusing on the conservative talking point that the companies are "biased" against conservative viewpoints, Democrats in the committee took the opportunity to castigate President Donald Trump for his disastrous press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and highlight abuses of the platforms by Russian operatives to spread disinformation during the 2016 presidential election. These attempts to broaden the subject matter led to one of the only telling exchanges of the hearing, which was otherwise unremarkable due to the witnesses' skill at speaking in vague terms that allowed them to avoid answering specific questions. Louie Gohmert, the Republican congressman from Texas, used his time to rebut the committee's Democrats and asked the social media representatives whether they have found evidence of intelligence agencies from China, North Korea, or any other country using the platform in a similar manner as the Russians.