Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) grilled Twitter's acting general counsel Sean Edgett on Wednesday about the company's willingness to cooperate with Russian government-funded media—but not with the U.S. government.
Edgett admitted that Twitter has had to reverse course on a number of issues in its attempts to apply policies consistently, but Cotton questioned their decisions. Namely, he pointed out ways in which RT, a Kremlin-sponsored propaganda outlet, was able to analyze tweets in real time using Dataminr—a software company partially owned by Twitter—even though Twitter prevented the U.S. government from doing so.
"According to a Wall Street Journal report to which director Brennan was responding, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey vetoed the CIA-Dataminr contract at the last minute because he objected to the 'optics' of continuing to help U.S. intelligence agencies," Cotton said. "That Wall Street Journal report also said, though, that customers still getting Dataminr includes RT. Is that an accurate report?"
Edgett did not deny that RT was allowed to use Dataminr, as the 2016 article reported, and he said Twitter had considered RT "a regular media organization like a BBC or an NPR."
"As a global company, we have to apply our policies consistently," Edgett said, after saying the social media site was attempting to be fair when it allowed RT to use Dataminr but not the U.S. government.
Because this policy of preventing its data from being mined for "surveillance" was applied to the U.S., Cotton argued this was a position of "equivalency" between the CIA and Russian intelligence services.
"I hope that Twitter will reconsider its policies when it is dealing with friendly intelligence services in countries like the United States and the U.K., as opposed to adversarial countries like Russia and China," Cotton added.
Edgett answered by saying Twitter now allows the U.S. to use Dataminr for certain things, although it prevents Dataminer from being used for "surveillance."
"Our policy is not to allow anyone, for the purposes of user privacy, to use our technology to run surveillance," Edgett said.
Cotton asked about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, which CIA Director Mike Pompeo labels a "non-state hostile intelligence service," and Edgett said Twitter is also trying to remain unbiased on that matter.
"We have terms of service and rules that apply to all users, and we will apply those consistently and without bias. We take actions on accounts like WikiLeaks," he said.
"Is it bias to side with America over our adversaries?" Cotton interjected.
"We're trying to be unbiased around the world," Edgett replied. "We are obviously an American company and care deeply about the issues we are talking about today, but as it relates to WikiLeaks or other accounts like it, we make sure that they are in compliance with our policies just like every other account."
Cotton replied by pointing to perceived bias in how Twitter applies its policies, specifically a decision to prevent Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) from advertising her Senate campaign.
"So you'll be unbiased towards WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, but you'll take down videos of people like Marsha Blackburn, a Republican running for the United States Senate?" Cotton asked.
Edgett said Blackburn's video was barred from being advertised but not removed, and he explained that Twitter took that action due to complaints.
"In that case, we had users reporting that it was inflammatory and upsetting, and it was initially taken down," Edgett said. "We are making these tough calls all the time, and in that case, we reversed the decision and allowed the advertisement to continue to run."
Cotton concluded by calling on Twitter and other American companies to consider the interests of America above those of Russia and others.
"I have to say, most American citizens would expect American companies would be willing to put the interests of our country above, not on par with, our adversaries—countries like Russia and China, or non-state actors like WikiLeaks or individuals like Julian Assange," Cotton said.