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Facebook, Google and others are in a lose-lose position with an upcoming congressional net neutrality hearing

Either they attend and face tough questions, or sit it out, potentially infuriating users and employees alike.

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A coming hearing in the U.S. Congress on net neutrality has left the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Netflix in a tough position: They can either subject their chief executives to a potential grilling — or sit it out and take plenty of political heat.

The stage is set for a September showdown at the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a powerful panel on Capitol Hill that oversees tech and telecom issues. The committee’s leader, Republican Rep. Greg Walden, has asked those industries’ executives to make the trip to Washington, D.C., in a few weeks to testify about the need for federal rules that require internet providers to treat all web traffic equally.

Already, that’s a tough ask for many confrontation-wary tech executives. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has never appeared before Congress, nor has Jeff Bezos, the leader of Amazon; Reed Hastings, the chief of Netflix; or Larry Page, the CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. All have been invited to attend.

But if they decline to appear, they might send a poor political signal — to supporters and opponents alike — at a time when the Trump administration is preparing to scrap the U.S. government’s current net neutrality rules.

Zuckerberg, for one, has publicly expressed his willingness to work with Congress to write a new net neutrality law. He and others even joined a massive online rally in support of open internet safeguards earlier this month. So their potential absence at the scheduled House hearing less than two months from now might smack of hypocrisy — or at the very least, annoy their regulators in the nation’s capital.

“I think it would be appropriate, I think it is expected, for the tech companies to choose to show up — to have the discussion — and I don’t think it’s a discussion they want to be absent from,” warned Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee who runs a key tech-focused subcommittee in Congress.

Blackburn has supported efforts by the Trump administration to undo the government’s existing net neutrality protections, arguing they’re too heavy-handed. As Congress decides what role it should play in that repeal, “it is important [tech] send their CEO, because the CEO is the team leader,” she said in an interview. “They’re the individual who’s setting the agenda.”

For the moment, tech giants don’t have much to say about their plans. First informed about the hearing on Tuesday morning, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Netflix later declined to tell Recode if they would dispatch their chief executives to Congress. They have until July 31 to contact the committee about their participation.

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, haven’t yet heard from those companies, either. But the House Energy and Commerce Committee did offer an early warning on Tuesday: “It is our expectation that the invited individuals will attend. These CEOs are in a unique position to provide important perspectives on issues they have long been publicly vocal on,” a spokesman for Walden, the panel’s leader, said in a statement.

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Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

The House committee also has invited Silicon Valley’s chief rivals to the scheduled Sept. 7 hearing — the top executives at AT&T, Charter, Comcast* and Verizon. Spokespeople for each telecom giant similarly declined to tell Recode whether they planned to attend.

In Washington, however, those companies already have an advantage — and a voice.

Republicans control the U.S. Congress, and they share with the telecom sector — as well as the Trump administration — a desire to roll back the government’s existing net neutrality rules and replace them with less-stringent regulation. The Federal Communications Commission is on track to proceed with such a repeal, while GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill are beginning to ponder if they should implement friendlier rules as a replacement.

Nor are telecom executives strangers to the halls of Congress: Unlike many tech executives, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson and others in his industry have testified repeatedly before federal lawmakers — albeit generally about their companies’ merger plans.

The tough political choice now facing Amazon’s Bezos, Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Google’s Page and Netflix’s Hastings is whether to personally challenge the telecom industry directly on Capitol Hill this September. But it’s a decision fraught with consequences.

Tech companies long have agonized for the strongest net neutrality rules possible, for example, but the issue has slipped on their lists of policy priorities in Washington, D.C. Silicon Valley leaders might not want to be seen quarreling with powerful Republicans, either, but they’re already under immense pressure to fight Trump and his agenda — on everything from immigration to climate change.

And the industry’s top executives may seek to avoid public confrontation and a barrage of cameras and a slew of news headlines, but they may be the only advocates for strong net neutrality regulations invited to testify at all before the House committee. So far, some of their allies haven’t received a request, they say.

“I hope they will testify, if the only people invited are four giant ISPs and four giant edge companies, because I think their voice matters and their dependence on an open internet is real,” said Matt Wood, the policy director for Free Press, in an interview. The group helped plan the online net neutrality rally earlier this year.

The absence of diverse viewpoints triggered a sharp rebuke earlier Tuesday from Democrats who sit on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The party’s top two tech-minded leaders on the panel, Reps. Frank Pallone and Mike Doyle, even wrote a letter to their Republican colleagues, imploring them to invite “real people” — not just wealthy executives — to testify on net neutrality.

In the Bay Area, meanwhile, there emerged renewed calls Tuesday for the tech industry’s biggest players to step up and sound off on behalf of lesser-known startups.

“It’s a tough position, since net neutrality is certainly not as pressing of an issue for most of the invited companies as it is for smaller tech companies, so attending isn’t probably something they’re too keen on doing,” said Evan Engstrom, the leader of Engine, a Bay Area group that focuses on policy issues facing startups. “But, if they don’t come, it makes it look like they don’t care at all.”

At the moment, Engstrom’s group also is trying to talk Walden and the committee into adding startup companies to its witness list, he told Recode. “But assuming we can’t add witnesses, I still think I’d rather have the CEOs participate than skip it entirely,” he said.

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Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Tech giants that decline to attend the hearing — or try to send a lower-level executive — could incur the wrath of federal lawmakers, who are known to blast companies that don’t testify. Then again, appearing before Congress could subject the likes of Amazon’s Bezos or Netflix’s Hastings to tough, unwelcome questions — on issues that might not have to do with net neutrality at all.

Blackburn, for one, recently has targeted online privacy. Earlier this year, she introduced a bill that would prevent tech and telecom companies from selling their customers’ web-browsing histories and other sensitive data without first obtaining permission. The likes of Facebook and Google already have lobbied extensively to stop it.

In an interview, Blackburn stopped short of pledging to press executives on that proposal, called the Browser Act, during the net neutrality hearing in September. But she did say that lawmakers should take a more “holistic” view when it comes to the open internet — and sounded an optimistic note about net neutrality legislation on the horizon.

“We’re very likely to see something with net neutrality take place this Congress,” Blackburn said. Both sides of the fight “do not want this to continue to ping-pong back and forth between different FCCs and different administrations ... so they feel like Congress needs to act. We agree, Congress needs to act, so therefore we’re going to do something about it.”

* Comcast, through its NBCU arm, is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this website.

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