Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey walked into the hearing room at the Dirksen Senate Building in Washington, DC, on Wednesday and took their seats next to an empty chair with a name tag that read "Google."
After days of speculation, Google decided against sending a representative to the highly anticipated hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about social media companies and foreign influence in the US.
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The committee had invited Page, CEO of Google parent Alphabet, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who reports to Page. But Google instead offered up Kent Walker, its senior vice president of global affairs. Sen. Richard Burr, committee chairman and a Republican from North Carolina, rejected that offer, saying the panel wouldn't accept anyone below the highest executive level.
"I'm disappointed that Google decided against sending the right senior level executive to participate in what I expect to be a productive discussion," Burr said Wednesday.
Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia and vice chairman of the committee, echoed the criticism.
"Google has an immense responsibility in this space," Warner said. "Given its size and influence, I would have thought the leadership at Google would want to demonstrate how seriously it takes these challenges."
As the hearing went on, Google's absence inspired some snark. "To the invisible witness, good morning to you," Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California, said as she began her questioning.
The image of Google's empty chair could come back to haunt Google. The search giant, which turned 20 years old Tuesday, reaches billions of people with its search, news, maps and web browsing services. YouTube, which Google owns, is the biggest video site on the planet and has become a favorite destination for bad actors when it comes to spreading fake news. About 45 percent of Americans get news from Facebook, but the second most popular source is YouTube, with 18 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
Congress has been eager to get answers straight from the company's leadership. But the Senate committee had been preparing for Google's decision to skip out. On Tuesday, Warner publicly called out Google one more time in a
Tomorrow the Senate Intelligence Committee will hold an important hearing on the social media companies’ responses to foreign influence operations. @Jack will be there. @SherylSandberg will be there. Larry Page should be there, too. It’s not too late for @Google to step up.— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) September 4, 2018
"Tomorrow the Senate Intelligence Committee will hold an important hearing on the social media companies' responses to foreign influence operations. @Jack will be there. @SherylSandberg will be there. Larry Page should be there, too. It's not too late for @Google to step up."
Asked for comment, a Google spokeswoman didn't directly address questions about who Google would or wouldn't send to the hearing. But she said Walker is still in Washington this week and is meeting with government officials, members of Congress and their staffs.
In the doghouse
Silicon Valley tech giants are still in the doghouse with Congress after Russian trolls abused their platforms to sow discord and false news among US voters in the 2016 presidential election. Google, Facebook and Twitter have said they've already detected new campaigns from foreign actors attempting to influence public opinion ahead of this fall's US midterm elections.
Last month, Google said it was removing 58 accounts tied to Iran from its services. That includes 39 channels on YouTube, six blogs on its Blogger site and 13 accounts from its Google+ social network. Google said the accounts were associated with the IRIB, or Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.
On top of that, Google has become a new favorite target for President Donald Trump. Last week, he tweeted that Google's search results are "RIGGED," saying the company is "suppressing voices of Conservatives."
"I think Google has really taken advantage of a lot of people," he told reporters later that day. "Google and Twitter and Facebook, they're really treading on very, very troubled territory, and they have to be careful."
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Losing the narrative
Perhaps the biggest loss for Google in skipping the hearing is an inability to defend itself.
And there's always an element of political theater when it comes to congressional hearings with high-profile CEOs. The moments that go viral or leave lasting impressions are often biting rebukes from lawmakers, sly one-liners and stark images. Google will have to deal with photos of that empty chair for years to come.
"I think they both risk becoming a punching bag by Congress and losing control of the narrative," said Jen King, director of Consumer Privacy at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society. "If Larry Page or whomever doesn't show up to defend Google as not being evil, they cede ground to their detractors."
First published Sept. 5, 6:34 a.m. PT.
Update, 8:59 a.m.: Adds more comments from senators.
The Honeymoon is over: Everything you need to know about why tech is under Washington's microscope.
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