Facebook, Google and Twitter given furious ad ultimatum

Facebook, Google, and Twitter have been given a stark ultimatum by US lawmakers, as the role each played in Russian gaming of the US election goes under the microscope. The three firms have faced challenging questioning at this week's Senate and House Intel Committee meetings, though arguably nothing so blunt as the deadline laid down by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein this morning. Speaking as part of the Senate Intel Committee, Sen. Feinstein told legal representatives of the trio that if they wouldn't fix things, the government would be forced to step in and do it for them.

"You bear the responsibility, you created these platforms, and now they're being misused," Feinstein told lawyers from Facebook, Google, and Twitter. "And you have to be the ones to do something about it, or we will."

It's been an at-times awkward week of hearings already, for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, some members of the committees the tech companies have faced have had seemingly rough grasps of exactly how social media operates. Topics at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday ranged from concerns that detailed records of who paid for adverts – and where they came from – were not available, to criticisms that the playing field was not level when it came to the left/right political balance.

Today, though, has seen the bluntest challenge, mind. Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch, Google General Counsel Kent Walker, and Twitter Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett faced accusations by the Republican leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr, of "a dark underbelly" that has formed as a result of the three platforms.

While each General Counsel argues that the Russian disinformation campaign has been a relatively small slice of overall activity on their respective networks, they're also saying all the customary things about taking it seriously. Nonetheless, those words aren't going down as well as they might have hoped. Indeed, the admission from Facebook's Stretch that the early figures for how many people might have been exposed to Russian-fed content were significantly less than the "little less than 150 million" people now believed to have seen such media across Facebook and Instagram drew ire from the lawmakers present.

Any hope that these hearings might be the end of the saga, however, was confidently ended by Sen. Feinstein. Describing the clandestine use of social networking by a foreign power in the hope of manipulating the democratic process as "a cataclysmic change," she warned the the lawyers that there'd be no backing down from her and her colleagues. "We are not going to go away, gentlemen," Feinstein insisted.

Exactly what might come of that threat remains to be seen. What Facebook, Google, and Twitter are all keen to avoid is being held responsible on a platform level for what is posted by users of those platforms. "This kind of national security vulnerability represents an unacceptable risk," Sen. Burr pointed out, "and your companies have a responsibility to reduce that vulnerability."

As another Senator on the panel, Democrat Ron Wyden, highlighted, there already exists federal laws which give US companies like these three the power to investigate "bad actors using these accounts." Wyden criticized the application of those powers as a failure in the last election, a sign that if Facebook, Google, and Twitter aren't ready to step up, lawmakers may do it for them.