Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified this morning before the House Judiciary Committee, where the executive fended questions about a range of issues, including data privacy and charges from Republicans that its search algorithms are biased against conservatives.
The search giant became the focus of criticism when Pichai declined the Senate Intelligence Committee’s invitation to testify about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Now, Pichai opted to follow other Silicon Valley executives, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, to Capitol Hill to defend his company. The CEO, questioned repeatedly about whether Google stifles conservative news and viewpoints, said Google’s search results merely reflect the latest information about a given search topic.
“I can assure you we do it without regards to political ideologies,” Pichai said. “Our algorithms have no notion of political sentiment.”
It’s a position Pichai staked out in his prepared remarks, saying, “I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way.”
The hearing, which concluded after 3 1/2 hours, was disrupted at one point by a protestor who opened the doors and held up a sign protesting Google’s reported plans to re-enter the Chinese market — which it abandoned in 2010. The company is reportedly developing a version of its search engine that would block some websites and search terms.
Pichai told the committee that Google has “no plans to launch in China,” though he added that the company’s core mission is to provide users access to information and that access to information is “an important human right.”
“I am happy to consult back if we plan something there,” Pichai said.
Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat, cited a New York Times investigation into the pervasiveness of mobile tracking to enable a $21 billion location-targeted ad business. The publication identified 75 companies that receive anonymous, precise location data from apps –some claiming to track up to 200 million mobile devices in the U.S. alone. The information is accurate to within a few yards, and, in some cases, it’s updated 14,000 times a day.
Pichai said such information is useful to deliver relevant ads, say, for a restaurant when a user is in a particular neighborhood. But he said Google doesn’t transmit personal information to advertisers.
“We wouldn’t do that without explicit user consent,” Pichai said. “Location is turning out to be an important area. As we consider privacy data, it’s important we give controls to consumers.”
House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, opened the hearing with a preview of today’s questions, saying the committee will be eager to hear how a company that controls 90% of all Internet searches is committed to competition, how it prevents political views from “creeping” into its search products and whether it’s developing a censored search engine for China.
McCarthy asked if Google would become a tool for the Chinese government to strengthen its system of suppression.
“I urge you to reflect on that fact, on the promise your company made when it pulled out of the country in 2010, back then Google said it would not compromise its search engine,” said McCarthy.
Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) talked about Google’s voracious appetite for data, which it collects through its dominant search engine, and the Android operating system that powers the majority of smartphones in the U.S., quietly gathering information about location, temperature and barometric pressure.
“With Americans carrying their smartphones all day, everyday, Google carries an amount of information on users that would make the NSA blush,” said Goodlatte.
Goodlatte also voiced concern about Google’s power to influence elections, citing work by researcher Robert Epstein of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, who found that search rankings can influence undecided voters’ views of a candidate.
“The point of search is to discriminate among multiple sources to find the best answer,” Goodlatte said. “The process turns much more sinister when Google manipulates this information to favor the party it likes.”
New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, the Democrat who will be the next leader of the Judiciary Committee, dismissed allegations of anti-conservative search bias as “fact-free propaganda” promoted by extreme right-wingers that lacks credible evidence.
Nadler offered a red-meat challenge to his Republican colleagues, noting the FCC abandoned the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 under the Reagan Administration, opening the door to conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh and the conservative media giant Sinclair Broadcast Group.
He asked his House colleagues whether they’d be willing to restore such fairness requirements.
“I doubt we will see any interest in doing so,” said Nadler. “We should not let the delusions of the far right distract us from the real issues.”
The real issues of concern, Nadler said, is the role Russia played in manipulating digital platforms to influence the 2016 election, and how Google has responded to such an unprecedented attack to insulate itself from foreign interference. He said digital platforms are stoking racial hatred, which is on the rise — citing the anti-Semitic attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the killing of an Indian engineer in Kansas by a shooter who yelled, “Get out of my country.”
“These are not isolated instances, but examples of a disturbing trend,” Nadler said. “How can Google play a constructive role in combating its spread.”