Google CEO Sundar Pichai faces Congress over political bias, China and data collection

Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.


Alex Wong / Techhnews

Google CEO Sundar Pichai defended the search giant against criticism on political bias, its data collection policies and efforts in China during a high-profile hearing on Tuesday.

The leader of the world’s largest search engine took the stand before the House Judiciary Committee in Washington, DC. The discussion was wide-ranging, but for the Republican-led House, the big topic of discussion was alleged bias against conservatives on Google’s platforms, such as its search results and its YouTube video-sharing service.

“I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way,” Pichai said in prepared testimony. “To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests. We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions — and we have no shortage of them among our own employees.”


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Those words didn’t satisfy House Republicans, who pushed back.

“The American people deserve to know what information they are not getting when they do searches on the internet,” Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia.

Pichai found himself walking a fine line between tamping down concerns that content surfaced on the company’s platforms are not diverse enough, as well as ensuring Google and YouTube take down content that could be harmful or objectionable. 

“YouTube is an important platform. We do want to allow for diverse perspectives and opinions, but we have rules of the road,” Pichai said. “When we find violations on our policies, we do remove those videos.”

The hearing is Pichai’s first before Congress, and it’s been a long time in the making. In September, he skipped a high-profile tech hearing that included Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Both Pichai and Larry Page, the CEO of Google parent Alphabet, had been invited but neither showed up. Congress made clear its disappointment, setting an empty chair and a name tag reading “Google” next to the two tech luminaries who did appear. Their absence drew widespread anger from lawmakers.

Pichai, meanwhile, has been trying to mend Google’s relationship with the federal government. Pichai, along with leadership from Microsoft, Oracle and other tech companies, attended a meeting last week at the White House to discuss topics such as 5G wireless networks and internet innovation. Pichai also reportedly went to Washington in September to meet with lawmakers, including Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, in closed-door meetings.

The hearing on Tuesday also attracted spectacle on the sidelines. Alex Jones, the right-wing commentator known for spreading conspiracy theories on his Infowars platform, sat in the audience behind Pichai. At one point, a protester held up a sign mashing up Google’s logo with the Chinese flag. 

There was also another familiar face in the audience: A protester dressed like Monopoly man, who also attended a hearing in 2017 with then-Equifax CEO Richard Smith over the company’s massive data breach. The protester, named Ian Madrigal, also attended Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s hearing in April dressed as a troll doll wearing a Russian flag scarf. 

Tuesday’s hearing comes as Silicon Valley faces a reckoning with both the government and public over data collection practices and misinformation on their platforms. Google has managed to escape much of the criticism that’s been heaped on Facebook, which remains under fire for having been slow to respond to Russian interference in the 2016 election, and mishandling the data of tens of millions of its 2.3 billion users in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

On Tuesday, however, the spotlight is solely on Google.

Unanswered questions

Republicans were eager to question Pichai on alleged anticonservative bias at Google, which, like most of Silicon Valley, is seen as a largely liberal-leaning company.

In August, President Donald Trump accused Google of skewing search results in a liberal direction. He tweeted that Google’s search results are “rigged,” saying the company is “suppressing voices of Conservatives.” He also tweeted a video claiming Google promoted former President Barack Obama’s State of the Union addresses every January but not his. Trump added the hashtag #StopTheBias.

Google rejected his claim, noting that its home page did promote the president’s address in January. The company also said it didn’t promote either Trump’s or Obama’s address from their first years in office because those speeches aren’t technically considered State of the Union addresses. A screenshot from the Internet Archive, which records web domains, backed up Google.

Democrats rejected the claims of conservative bias. Rep. Ted Lieu from California called the topic of the hearing “ridiculous.” He said negative news is surfaced on Google isn’t the company’s fault. “If you want positive search results, do positive things. If you don’t want negative search results, don’t do negative things,” he said. “If you’re getting bad press articles and bad search results, don’t blame Google or Facebook or twitter. Consider blaming yourself. ” 

Still, Republicans have fodder for complaints.

After the Trump administration launched a controversial travel ban involving seven Muslim-majority countries, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google employees discussed tweaking search results to show users how they could contribute to pro-immigration causes.

And two days after the 2016 election, Google’s leadership expressed dismay over Trump’s victory, according to a video of a companywide meeting leaked to Breitbart in September.

In one tense exchange on Tuesday, Rep. Jim Harris, a Republican from Ohio, criticized Pichai for allegedly praising the work of a Google employee during the 2016 election for helping to get out the Latino vote “in key states.” Pichai, flustered, said the company acts without a political agenda and offered to follow up with Harris’s team. 

Efforts in China

Google has also been roiled by reports about Project Dragonfly, its apparent plan to build a censored search engine for China, eight years after retreating from the country. At the time of its departure, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union, cited the “totalitarianism” of Chinese policies for the company’s moves.

Pichai, who’s been described as a driving force behind the project, repeatedly said Tuesday that Google has “no plans” to launch a search engine in China and that the company is “only internally” working on the project and it’s “undertaken by search teams” at the Google.

He acknowledged that the project at one point had “over a hundred” people work on it, the first time the company has gone into detail on the scope of the project. He said, though, that it’s a “limited effort” within the company. 

Still, he seemed to leave the door open. “It’s always in our duty to explore possibilities,” he said.

The search giant has also dealt with controversies over security and data privacy. In October, Google announced it would be  shutting down its Google+ social network, months after the company found and fixed a security flaw that might’ve exposed the personal data of 500,000 Google+ users. But Google had disclosed the problem only after a report in The Wall Street Journal.

On Monday, Google said it found another Google+ bug that affected more than 50 million people. The vulnerability prompted Google to fast-track the social network’s shutdown, originally planned for August, to April. 

Several lawmakers on Tuesday drilled in on questions about the specific types of data Google can collect on users with its Android mobile operating system. Asked about collecting things like IP addresses and user location, Pichai repeatedly said that people can adjust what Google collects by changing their settings. But he conceded that sometimes product settings and user agreements can be confusing. 

“We want to simplify it,” he said. “I do think we can do better.”

Updated, 8:39 a.m., 10:13 a.m. and 10:48 a.m. PT: Adds information from hearing.

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