Ronald Reagan once joked that the nine “most terrifying words” in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help.
On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., embodied those “terrifying words” when she warned Silicon Valley executives that Congress would do something about the foreign disinformation problem if the tech industry didn’t do it itself.
“I must say, I don’t think you get it,” the California senator said Wednesday during a hearing featuring representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter. “You’re general counsels. You defend your company. What we’re talking about is cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber-warfare. What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with the sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over the country.”
She added, “We are not going away, gentlemen. And this is a very big deal.”
This isn’t Congress’ first hearing on the matter. Representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google appeared on Capitol Hill earlier this week to testify on attempts by foreign operatives to spread disinformation during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That hearing proved fairly unproductive as neither company was willing to explain or commit to anything meaningful. In short, the hearing was basically one big shrug from Silicon Valley.
“I went home last night with profound disappointment,” Feinstein continued at Wednesday’s hearing. “I asked specific questions, I got vague answers. And that just won’t do. You have a huge problem on your hands. And the U.S. is going to be the first of the countries to bring it to your attention, and other countries are going follow, I’m sure.”
She added [emphasis added]: “Because you bear responsibility. You created the platforms … and now they’re being misused. And you have to be the ones who do something about it – or we will.”
Here’s the thing: Facebook, Google, and Twitter aren’t the problem. The problem is that people are gullible enough to be taken in by these obvious disinformation campaigns. It’s not Facebook’s fault that its users are fooled easily by trash propaganda. It's also not Facebook’s responsibly to change that. Same goes for Twitter and Google.
These companies are not in the business (yet) of policing who says and shares what on their respective platforms, and we’re all better off for that. The worst thing that could come from this troll problem is for Congress to decide it needs to do something because it doubts Silicon Valley's commitment to finding a solution.
That would put Congress squarely at the helm of a campaign to censor information online. We can hardly wait for the day when U.S. Senators get to decide what is permissible speech.