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Major Internet Firms Face More Congressional Hearings

WASHINGTON — Major internet firms, already poised to testify at hearings next week on Russian interference in the 2016 election, are facing more congressional scrutiny in November on consumer privacy, security, news flow, and even how Google and other search engines set their algorithms.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote in an op-ed on Friday that “these hearings are just the start of a long-term, thoughtful, and research-focused approach to better illuminate how Americans’ data is being used online, how to ensure that data is safe, and how information is being filtered to consumers over the web.”

“While technology is responsible for a lot of positive change in our world, malignant behavior online can have consequences that are not fully disclosed to the American people,” he wrote.

He said the hearings would pose a series of questions, including how consumer data is used and how users are traced.

“Firms also control what consumers see when visiting their sites, potentially altering content and choices unbeknownst to the consumer,” Walden wrote. “Can consumers be sure that the results they see on Google or other search engines reflect the most relevant results? Can consumers have confidence the news and information they encounter online and through social media platforms are presented to them objectively and without bias? Next month, we will hold a hearing analyzing these practices, making certain they do not infringe on consumer choice and safety.”

He did not specify what companies would be invited or called to testify.

He also said there would be a separate hearing on identity verification practices, in response to massive hacking incidents. Walden said they will determine whether the verification “can be improved to protect personal data on the web even after a consumer’s information has been breached.”

Walden’s announcement is the latest indication of just how much internet and tech firms have come under the microscope on Capitol Hill for their business practices and impact on society.

On Nov. 1, the general counsels of Facebook, Twitter, and Google are scheduled to testify at Senate and House intelligence committee hearings on social media influence on the 2016 campaign, including the ability of Russian sources to spread fake news and buy advertising on the platforms. Company representatives also are expected at an Oct. 31 Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Russian interference in the election.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter have already met privately with Senate intelligence committee members and staffers. Facebook said they have discovered that Russian-linked firms purchased about 3,000 ads on its platform from 2015 to 2017, tied to divisive issues in the American electorate.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have proposed legislation to require greater disclosure measures for political ads that run online.

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