Meet the Google executive who will give evidence on the giant threat facing US democracy

GettyGoogle could be represented by an empty chair in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.
  • Google is set to be empty-chaired by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday during a crucial hearing on election interference.
  • Sundar Pichai and Larry Page declined to give evidence alongside Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.
  • Instead, the company will send its top lawyer, Kent Walker, to Washington to provide written testimony to senators.
  • Empty chairing is not without precedent, but the stakes have rarely been so high, making Google’s absence all the more pronounced.

There is little debate that election interference online is a threat to democracy. It was used in the US presidential election two years ago, may have had some bearing over Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, and is an issue governments are wrestling with the world over.

It is why top executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google have been summoned by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, when they have been asked to give evidence on foreign influence operations on their platforms ahead of the US midterms in November.

The chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg will represent Facebook, following a public-relations blitz in which CEOMark Zuckerberg has declared election meddling an “arms race” between good and evil. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey will also be in the firing line after a busy few weeks justifying his decision to allow the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to carry on tweeting.

Google, however, is likely to be represented by an empty chair.

Both CEO Sundar Pichai and his boss, Alphabet CEO Larry Page, reportedly were invited to give evidence but declined. Instead, Google put forward its top lawyer, Kent Walker – an offer the Senate Intelligence Committee declined.

“Chances are there’s going to be an empty chair there,” the committee’s vice chair, Sen. Mark Warner, told CNBC last week. “I think there will be a lot more questions raised that could have been actually dealt with if they sent a senior decision-maker and not simply their counsel.”

Business Insider has contacted Google for comment. In a statement to other media, the company said Walker would be in Washington to “deliver written testimony, brief members of Congress on our work, and answer any questions they have.”

The empty-chair device is largely an exercise in political theatre, but it’s not without precedent. The former White House adviser Karl Rove failed to show up at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in 2008, with an empty chair and a placard with his name appearing in his place. That same year, Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defence for policy, was also empty-chaired at a hearing.

But the stakes have rarely been so high, making Google’s absence all the more pronounced.

And it’s not just the issue of election interference that would benefit from transparency from Google. The company is accused by the White House of harboring a liberal bias and is facing concerns over storing user location data, and its own employees are said to be upset about its reported plans to launch a censored search engine in China.

Where answers should be forthcoming, it will be an inanimate piece of furniture that speaks loudest.

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