Facebook and Twitter were supposed to be under the microscope at a Senate hearing on Wednesday, but Chinese device makers Huawei and ZTE ended up catching some of the flak.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg came to Capitol Hill to offer insight about how foreign governments are using their sites to spread misinformation on social media and what they’re doing to fix the problem. The tenor of the hearing was largely cordial as lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee talked about how they could work with the companies. Any real outrage seemed directed at Google, which declined to send an executive to testify.
But Google wasn’t the only company to catch the ire of the senators. Sens. Ron Wyden a Democrat from Oregon and Tom Cotton a Republican from Arkansas called out Chinese telecom gear and phone makers for their ties to Chinese communist government.
It’s just the latest blow to the Huawei and ZTE, China’s two largest telecommunications manufacturers and companies that have long dealt with security concerns regarding their ties to the Communist Party. The companies have attempted — and for Huawei, failed — to break into the US market despite making inroads elsewhere around the world.
Cotton, who has called companies like Huawei ‘an arm of the Chinese government’ and who has introduced legislation that would prevent companies doing business with the US government from using gear from Chinese telecom gear makers, actually complimented Twitter and Facebook for being blocked in China. He said the companies should wear that designation like a ‘badge of honor.’
Then he took a swipe at Google, who he said was ‘cooperating’ with companies like Huawei and ‘the Chinese Communist Party,’ while also supposedly working on building a censored search engine for China and ending its work with the US military to weaponize AI technology.
Meanwhile, Wyden brought up the fact that Facebook has admitted that it’s shared user data with Chinese companies like Huawei to improve users’ mobile experience on devices made by these companies. The company began winding down that relationship in June. Wyden pressed Sandberg for information about the company’s internal audits that will show how and what information was shared with these companies. Sandberg said she could not commit to sharing the audit.
‘Personal data is now the weapon of choice for political influence campaigns and we must not make it easier for adversaries to seize these weapons against us,’ Wyden said.
All of this comes five months after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg traveled to Capitol Hill to testify before three committees over two days about Cambridge Analytica, Russian election interference, and censorship. It also comes just a couple of months before the the midterm elections and amid reports from these companies that Russians and other foreign actors have stepped up their efforts to interfere with US elections.
Huawei and ZTE have had a rough year in the US. AT&T and Verizon both dropped plans to sell Huawei phones after government pressure, and ZTE faced a ban preventing US businesses to work with it until President Donald Trump intervened. US intelligence officials have expressed concerns about the security of their products.
Google and Facebook have been under intense scrutiny over their data-collection practices and their relationships with Chinese companies. In June, Sen. Mark Warner, co-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, expressed concern about Google’s dealings with Huawei and Xiaomi, another Chinese device maker. The possibility of the Chinese firm having access to data from Google ‘raises national security concerns,’ Warner said in a letter, according to the Virginia Democrat.