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Does Google thinks it’s too good–too smart–for democracy?

When the top three Internet companies were invited to Capitol Hill last month to explain the political impact of their operations, Twitter and Facebook sent their CEOs. Google sent a lawyer. Rather than hear the minion of Mountain View, the Congress chose to leave Google’s chair empty. 

The empty chair in Washington symbolized the arrogance of a Silicon Valley information monopoly that doesn’t care to answer questions about its business practices from the fools that the American people have chosen to represent them. 

Google Empty Chair
Google’s empty chair on Capitol Hill (Credit: CNBC)

It would be understandable if Google was discouraged from participating by the remarkable ignorance displayed by some elected officials in televised hearings. When Google CEO Sundar Pichai finally deigned to testify, Republicans spent most of their time asking him about an unscientific study that claimed that Google’s search engine discriminates against conservatives. Rep. Steve King, the racist congressman from Iowa, asked Pichai about his granddaughter’s Iphone, apparently under the belief that it was made by Google. 

But political idiocy is an inevitable feature of democracy. It does not give a giant corporation a hall pass to skip a class in democratic accountability.  And it cannot excuse Google’s non-cooperation with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russian influence operations in the 2016 election. 

The empty chair was followed by a middle finger salute.

When the committee commissioned the Computational Propaganda Research Project at Oxford University to study the impact of social media, Facebook and Twitter mostly cooperated. The social network and the chat network turned over data about hundreds of accounts traced to the Internet Research Association, the Russia-based enterprise that sought to manipulate U.S. public opinion on a massive scale.

(The IRA used DCLeaks web site, registered by Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate, (GRU) to distribute some of its messages. Twelve Russians associated with the IRA have been indicted on fraud and conspiracy charges by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.)

Google did not cooperate, according the project’s report, released Monday. In fact, the search giant seems to have gone out of its way to limit the usefulness of the data it did supply. 

Here’s what the Oxford researchers had to say.

“Google provided images of ads, videos that were uploaded to YouTube and non-machine readable PDFs of tabulated data on advertisements but provided no context or documentation about this content. “

The researchers were especially interested in how the IRA used YouTube videos to amplify its racially and ideologically divisive messages. Google wasn’t interested in helping.

“The YouTube data provided to the SSCI was remarkably scarce and only included video files, without the contact or metadata necessary to be comparable to other datasets.”

Indeed, Google’s response was deliberately unhelpful, almost contemptuous, as if to tell Congress, “You are not smart enough to understand what we do.”

“Google chose to supply the Senate committee with data in a non-machine-readable format. The evidence that the IRA had bought ads on Google was provided as images of ad text and it PDF format whose pages displayed copies of information previously organized in spreadsheets. This means that Google could have provided the useable ad text and spreadsheets–in a standard machine-readable file format, such as CSV or JSON that would be useful to data scientists–but chose to turn them into images and PDFs as if the material would all be printed out on paper.”

The Oxford researchers’ conclusion was a very polite shaming of Google. 

“Sharing data about public problems should be more than performative. It should be meaningful and constructive. And it should be matched with responsive support and communication channels to that researchers can make  progress understanding problem that the social media firms themselves seem to have difficulty investigating.”

The question is why did Google not cooperate? I asked Google to comment on the the researchers’ claim that Google’s cooperation was “performative.” 

I’ll post Google’s answer if/when I get it.

The most likely answer its that Google fears the investigation of its social media impact will be followed by congressional hearings on its monopolistic business practices. Google didn’t want to set a precedent. It’s not that democracy isn’t important to Google’s leadership. It’s that the company’s business model is more important. 

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