Opinion | The Politicians Are Coming for Silicon Valley

By Kara Swisher

Some regulations are necessary, but others could hinder innovation and growth in what is arguably the United States’ greatest industry.

Kara Swisher

By Kara Swisher

Ms. Swisher covers technology and is a contributing opinion writer.

CreditCreditIllustration by Jeffrey Henson Scales; photographs by Dado Ruvic/Reuters and Eric Thayer for The New York Times

On Wednesday morning, the Senate Intelligence Committee will grill two prominent Silicon Valley leaders and a piece of furniture.

Specifically: A chair. Presumably, wooden.

The pair of executives will be Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook chief operating officer, and Jack Dorsey, the founder and chief executive of Twitter. They will be lightly pummeled about their responsibility for election meddling by foreign powers and the related use and abuse of fake news on their enormous communications platforms.

The chair would have seated either Larry Page, the co-founder of Google and chief executive of its parent company, Alphabet, or Sundar Pichai, who now runs Google. But neither accepted the committee’s invitation to appear. They offered up the company’s top lawyer, Kent Walker, in their stead, which the senators did not like so much, and thus the empty seat.

If this sounds like empty political theater (like the hearings that are going on right now over the latest Supreme Court nominee), it’s not. Congress has let Silicon Valley off easy so far. If the tech companies want to avoid a raft of onerous regulation, they need to be even more forthright than they have been about what went wrong, and how they plan to fix it.

Google has submitted written testimony, but the absence of its leaders, while the other two major internet platforms offer themselves up for a public smacking, is a mistake. It reveals a perfect contrast in how to deal with the increasing pressure that tech will face as Washington turns its angry eyes westward.

Much of that anger is legitimate; much is contradictory, if not simply ridonkulous. The complainants include Democrats who blame the digerati for letting the Russians manipulate their platforms to throw the election; progressives who want more restrictions on hate speech; Republicans who think those same tech companies are hopelessly biased against them; conservatives who have called for nationalizing the platforms (hello, Pravda!); others who want to impose strict rules over privacy; and still others who want “anything goes” to prevail.

And, oh yeah, did you know tech is also dangerously addictive and killing our global psyche, the digital equivalent of drinking a Big Gulp while lighting up a Juul?

Washington is a toxic swamp for tech leaders to wade into. But they must — and carefully — lest they get eaten, drown or just end up very, very dirty.

Mark Zuckerberg, Ms. Sandberg’s boss, already endured 10 hours of interrogation by the Senate and the House commerce committees in April, from which he emerged relatively unscathed, thanks to the utter incompetence and lack of expertise of most of the politicians asking the questions.

That is not the case with Richard Burr of North Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat.

Unlike what has been served up so far by their counterparts in the House — I’d like a dopey Devin Nunes platter, with a side order of inaccurate Trump tweets, please — their focus on the nefarious Russian influence on the American election has been laudable. And sources from all sides say that the pair have agreed to try to keep the focus on the important issues.

This matters, because America needs a clear explanation of what its social media giants expect to become, before legislation forces all manner of regulations on them. Some of these will be decent, like forcing better privacy rules, but others could hinder innovation and growth in what is arguably the United States’ greatest industry.

To begin, let’s just note that there is value in the idea that some of the leaders of the most powerful technology companies in the world have been compelled to appear before a dozen elected officials to explain themselves and the damage they have caused, and to give an extensive update on the solutions they have to offer.

“It’s how democracies are done, having to justify yourself and your actions in public,” an employee of one of these companies who asked to remain anonymous told me. “And admitting you got things wrong.”

Truth. But it will be the drilling down — and not just the sound bites — that will be key. That includes requiring Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Dorsey to provide deep specifics on how well the platforms have cleaned up fake accounts; how transparent they have made the buying and selling of online political ads (and maybe all ads); and how much progress they have made in demoting and deleting fake news.

Also critical is explaining how and why they let their platforms be so easily manipulated to begin with. This will perhaps require admitting that bad actors used them in exactly the way they were built to be used.

The platforms, long focused on goosing audience and revenue, let that happen. Given all the political and media scrutiny, they now have plenty of incentives to crack down.

They will also have to address crazier notions, like the obsession many politicians on the right now have with the idea that the platforms are biased against them, hiding or playing down conservative voices. After the Senate intelligence hearing in the morning, Mr. Dorsey alone will face questions later in the day from the House Energy and Commerce Committee on how Twitter manages its algorithm and moderates its content. While that will most likely produce more fireworks and plenty of dumb assertions, Mr. Dorsey will have to sit still and take it with equanimity.

On other topics, tech leaders need to take what Washington throws at them more seriously because of the threat of legislation that is looming. Already, regulators in Europe and legislators in more aggressive states like California have taken tough actions on privacy, data and more, which could be a prelude to federal laws.

Protecting tech platforms from abuse is only the first big challenge. These companies are going to have to manage increasingly complex issues, and this is going to require working with the government and accepting some level of regulation.

How will they protect consumers from the “internet of things”? Who will regulate autonomous vehicles? Should tech companies continue to get immunity from what is on their platforms? Should algorithms be transparent? What are the rules around artificial intelligence, automation, robotics, data portability — even embedded tech in people, like, say, a permanent mobile phone in your ear or screen in your eye?

You get the idea. And, just to note, there is another congressional hearing set for October on antitrust issues and tech giants. That means it’s going to be a very long and bumpy road for Silicon Valley leaders. They might want to strap themselves into those wooden chairs today and hold on tight.

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Kara Swisher, editor at large for the technology news website Recode and producer of the Recode Decode podcast and Code Conference, is a contributing opinion writer. @karaswisher Facebook