Senators blast Google executives for not showing up to hearings on election meddling

Key Points
  • The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence pointedly set up an empty chair to shame Google parent company Alphabet.
  • Google tried to send its top lawyer to the hearing on foreign interference in U.S. elections, but the committee wanted either Alphabet CEO Larry Page or Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai to testify alongside executives from Twitter and Facebook.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence left a chair empty after Google executives declined invites to testify at a  hearing on foreign meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Pat Anastasi | CNBC

Sometimes an empty chair can speak volumes.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence intentionally set up an unoccupied seat to shame Google parent company Alphabet at Wednesday's hearing on foreign meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The committee wanted either Alphabet CEO Larry Page or Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai to testify alongside Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, but the company offered its top lawyer and senior vice president of global affairs, Kent Walker, instead. That decision rankled committee leaders Sen Mark Warner, D-Va., and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who rejected the substitution, hence the pointedly vacant chair.

"I'm disappointed Google decided against sending the right senior level executive," Burr, the chair of the committee, said in his opening remarks.

Warner, vice chair of the committee, echoed Burr's statement.

"I'm deeply disappointed that Google — one of the most influential digital platforms in the world – chose not to send its own top corporate leadership to engage this committee," Warner said.

Sen. Warner: Disappointed that Google chose not to participate

While the committee wouldn't accept Google's counsel in lieu of Page or Pichai, Walker submitted testimony anyway and will be in Washington this week taking meetings and giving briefings, according to a Tuesday blog post. The testimony outlined Google's new guidelines for political ad disclosures and states that Google continues to remove bad actors, like the Kremlin-affiliated Internet Research Agency, that try to mislead users.

However, the Campaign for Accountability published a report on Tuesday that seemed to highlight the challenges of keeping deceptive content off of Google's platforms: The organization posed as the IRA and was still able to buy and target politically divisive advertising.

Politically, it's been a rough summer for Google. In July, the European Union slapped the company with a $5 billion fine for antritrust abuse of its mobile operating system, Android. At the beginning of August, Google drew both internal and external criticism after its plans for a censored search app in China leaked to the press.

Then, at the end of the month, President Donald Trump accused Google of liberal bias, including the false assertion that it had promoted all of former President Barack Obama's State of the Union speeches, but not his.

By not showing up for the Senate hearing, Google may have avoided answering some uncomfortable questions unrelated to election meddling. For example, Warner told Wired that he planned to question Google about its plans in China and during the hearing, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said that he would have asked Google about that, too, as well as the company's decision not to renew a controversial Pentagon contract.

"Perhaps they didn't send a witness to answer these questions because there is no answer," he said, "And the silence we would hear right now from the Google chair would be reminiscent of the silence that that witness would provide."

Sen. Burr: Today's hearing about the solution to the problem