Google CEO Sundar Pichai appeared before a congressional committee amid questions about the massive corporation’s market domination of online search and digital advertising, digital privacy practices, manipulation of search to favor its own products and whether it plans to produce a search engine for the Chinese market. Pichai instead spent a huge chunk of time answering questions based on the false premise that Google is biased against conservatives.
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) wanted to know why Google search results for the Republican Party’s healthcare repeal bill were so negative. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) wanted answers for why his granddaughter saw a mean article about him on his iPhone, a product made by Apple. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) wanted Google to investigate its own employees for being liberal. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) held up a “study” showing that Google was biased because 96 percent of search results about President Donald Trump came from “the liberal media.” Liberal media outlets in the study included such noted bastions of progressivism as CNBC, Fortune Magazine, People Magazine, Variety and The Military Times.
Some Democrats took the bait, and they defended Google from accusations of anti-conservative bias as if that were the point of the hearing. Some came to Google’s defense. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) presented Pichai with a softball question about why image searches for the word “idiot” brought up pictures of Trump. Pichai easily explained how the search algorithm crawls indexed sites to produce results that reflect what people are posting to the internet. See, there is no partisan behind the curtain. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) also defended the corporate giant by claiming that anti-conservative bias questions are a waste of time because Google has “corporate free speech rights” that the government cannot infringe.
This was exactly the hearing Google wanted and likely why Pichai agreed to appear before a lame-duck Republican Congress instead of waiting for Democrats to take the committee gavel in January.
But beneath the surface of anti-conservative bias claims, committee members from both parties snuck in questions about the real issues pertaining to Google’s dominant role in the world. While Pichai effortlessly dodged many of these questions, what the lawmakers asked him revealed an emerging bipartisan consensus that the industry status quo on issues like digital privacy is no longer sustainable.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) gave a preview of what a Democratic Party-led committee hearing could look like next year by needling Pichai about Google’s anti-competitive search practices, which prompted the European Union to slap it with a $2.7-billion fine in 2017. Pichai said that he disagreed with findings of anti-competitive search bias. Cicilline fired back that he was concerned about Google’s “discriminatory approach in the marketplace” and stated his support for “structural antitrust” enforcement, meaning he favors breaking up anti-competitive monopoly power. This matters greatly as Cicilline will likely head the House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust panel for the next two years and be able to call Google executives to testify about these very issues.
Cicilline also pressed Pichai on his evasive responses over whether Google was going to re-enter the Chinese market, a major concern considering the ethical questions about working to support China’s surveillance state. Pichai refused to rule out going back to China after Google famously pulled out of the country in 2010.
“Will you, Mr. Pichai, rule out launching a tool for surveillance and censorship in China while you’re CEO of Google?” Cicilline asked.
“Congressman, one of the things that’s important for us as a company, we have a stated mission of providing users with information, and so we always think it’s in our duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information,” Pichai answered. “I have a commitment, but as I’ve said earlier on this, we’ll be very thoughtful, and we’ll engage widely as we make progress.”
Both Republicans and Democrats pressed Pichai about the company’s privacy practices. Most of their questions revolved around a New York Times article that detailed how Google’s location tracking data made available through apps on its Android devices could be used to track and identify an individual person based on their every movement. Pichai fell back on Google’s common defense that users are able to turn off location tracking, although many users are not aware of their settings.
What stood out about the questions about privacy at the hearing was that both parties appeared to oppose the current lack of digital privacy.
Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.) both asked Pichai specific questions about the companies data tracking and collection policies. Collins asked Pichai how long Google retains user data. Pichai said that absent any change in the user’s settings data will be retained indefinitely. This was a key point in the European Union’s data regulation, which called for data minimization, a principle that data should only be collected for a specific task and not retained to be repurposed. Deutch pressed Pichai on why it was necessary to allow third-party apps to collect so much location data that they could determine the identity of an individual user.
These kinds of questions may not have caused any kind of live television revelation or spectacle from the soft-spoken Pichai. They did reveal that Democrats and Republicans share the same misgivings about Silicon Valley’s power as it relates to data privacy and China. These are areas where continued oversight and possibly privacy legislation could be done in a bipartisan fashion. Pichai may have walked out of the committee, like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg before him, unscathed. But Congress takes its sweet time to reach a conclusion on everything it considers. The emerging bipartisan anger over the lack of any federal data privacy rules should worry these big data conglomerates.
Sebastian Murdock contributed reporting.