Is it time for Facebook, Twitter, and Google to become more American?

Oh, say can you see…
Oh, say can you see…
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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This week, US Congress members accused Facebook, Twitter, and Google of being everything from hapless to stupid in a series of public hearings in Washington D.C.

But Tom Cotton, the Republican senator from Arkansas, took things a step further, and called them traitors. Cotton lit into Twitter attorney Sean Edgett about the company’s refusal last year to let US intelligence agencies use a data-mining tool (paywall), at the same time it was marketing the same tool to Russian state media outlet Russia Today.

“In essence, last year Russia was beginning its covert influence campaign against the United States, and Twitter was on the side of Russia,” Cotton said (video). “How can your company justify this pattern of behavior to your fellow citizens?” Cotton asked.

“Most American citizens would expect American companies to be willing to put the interests of our country above, not on par with, our adversaries, countries like Russia and China,” he concluded, witheringly.

Cotton’s inquiry highlights a new dilemma for the Silicon Valley companies already struggling to figure out how exactly they were weaponized by the Russian government to influence the last US election. Do they also need to start putting American interests first?

After the Charlottesville, Virginia protest in which a female counter-protestor was killed by a neo-Nazi, Silicon Valley platforms shrugged off their previous claims of cultural neutrality, and started banning white supremacists. In the wake of Russia’s meddling, the time has come, Senator Cotton and others in Congress said this week, for them to shrug off their geographical neutrality, and act more like American companies.

“If two Americans have a disagreement, let’s have at it,” said James Lankford, the Republican Senator from Oklahoma, about the Russian users who posted paid political ads, in an attempt to divide Americans. But “if an outsider wants to come to it, we do have a problem with that,” he said.

Civic duty?

Lankford’s suggestion that these companies should limit how users can interact by nationality and Cotton’s that they should favor the US government over others is anathema for Silicon Valley’s tech giants. More than other globalized industries, these companies consider themselves above nation states, part of a borderless virtual ecosystem serving users who embrace globalization no matter where they reside. (The idea is not exclusive to tech, of course.)

“We’re not offering our service for surveillance to any government,” Edgett responded to Cotton during the Senate hearing.

Facebook’s mantra is to make the world more “open and connected,” and this January it said it also wants to bring it “closer together.” Its customers are increasingly outside the US—this past July, Facebook’s users in India topped the US for the first time, at 241 million. US users are 21% of Twitter’s total, 12% of Facebook’s, and the US contributes less than half of Google parent Alphabet’s revenue (pdf, pg 8).

On a more pragmatic level, these companies have also blithely moved assets overseas to avoid paying US taxes, making them major contributors to the $2 trillion cash pile American companies have abroad.

None of that excuses their obligation to put US interests first, Cotton’s office says. “Silicon Valley companies like Twitter are unquestionably American,” Cotton’s spokeswoman Caroline Tabler told Quartz. “They are founded and headquartered in the United States, listed on the United States stock exchange, and primarily subject to United States courts—what else could they be?”

As such, she said, they enjoy the “full blessings of American democracy,” and “should be expected to support that democracy and help keep it safe. Making money overseas does not absolve them of that basic civic obligation.”

Naivete, meet greed

Tech is in a tough spot, says Rebecca MacKinnon, the director of the Ranking Digital Rights project at New America, which is trying to set global standards for these companies. It is one they created themselves, she said.

“If you’re trying to be a global company, saying we’re going to treat Americans different from the way we treat everyone else who uses our platform, that’s not very good for business,” she said.

Silicon Valley firms already deal differently with requests from oppressive foreign governments and the US government, and how they deal with also varies from company to company. Google famously pulled its search engine out of China in 2010 because of censorship, while Twitter blocked a Turkish journalist’s tweets from being seen in his home country.

They all comply with local laws where they have offices, but sometimes quietly choose not to have a physical presence in a country that has particularly oppressive laws. They publish annual transparency reports  about the requests they receive from governments to delete or block information and whether they comply.

For all that, they still haven’t come to terms with the fact that Russia apparently exploited their platforms in an attempt to undermine one of the US’s most valuable traditions, a free and fair election. “They drank their own KoolAid,” said MacKinnon. These companies believed they were “God’s gift to democracy and it didn’t occur to them it could be possible that they could be anything else.”

Ultimately, she said, they fell victim to a “naiveté combined with greed.”

It’s an industry-wide problem. After surveying hundreds of tech executives, Brookings Institution researcher Greg Ferenstein concluded in 2015 that they are “extreme globalists,” and that Silicon Valley founders were achingly idealistic:

Their political and moral beliefs are based on a rather extreme idealism about human nature, society, and the future. They tend to believe all change over the long run ends up being good. Likewise, they reject the notion that there are inherent conflicts of interests between citizens, the government, corporations, or other nations.

That idealism flies in the face of thousands of years of human history. Google and Facebook have turned this borderless utopian vision into cash-generating powerhouses. They both make the vast majority of their money from advertising that’s goosed by easy-to-use automated systems that let nearly anyone, anywhere, target potential customers anywhere else.

They believe “you can maximize ad dollars and save the world at the same time,” MacKinnon said. “That’s the creed and religion of Silicon Valley,” she said. It’s just not true.

Money, money, money

In the wake of Russian meddling, Silicon Valley has introduced an escalating series of rules designed to limit who can take out political advertisements, and let users better understand who is paying for ads. “We’re investing so much in security that it will impact our profitability,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told Wall Street on Nov. 1. 

Nice talk. As the general counsels of Facebook, Google, and Twitter were getting pasted in Congress, Zuckerberg—who at age 33 is worth $74 billion—was on the other side of the world attending a speech by China’s authoritarian dictator Xi Jinping, whose government has a long history of hostile actions against the US. Afterward, Zuckerberg praised the “pace of innovation and entrepreneurship in China” on his own Facebook account, an update particularly notable because Facebook is blocked there.

Xi has struggled to maintain the country’s fast growth amid crippling debt. The Communist Party he runs has cracked down on free speech, jailed his political opponents and innocent citizens. It has also directly attacked America, by hacking US companies and government agencies, using Facebook to spread propaganda beyond its borders, and YouTube to spread videos that denigrate US democracy.

But China’s over 700 million internet users, and companies that want to advertise to them, are too attractive for Facebook to ignore. Last month, Facebook blocked a Chinese dissident from using his account.

On Nov. 2, Facebook Business, a newsletter it sends out to business accounts, urged companies to get ready for the next big online event—the World Cup, which is being hosted by Russia. “With more than 3 billion interactions, 2014’s tournament is the largest event on Facebook to date, and we expect 2018 to be even bigger,” the newsletter said. There was no mention of Russian hacking of the US election.