On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee had the opportunity to question one of the most powerful people on the planet—Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, the company that filters all the world's information. And they blew it.
Over the course of three and a half hours, the members of the committee staked out opposite sides of a partisan battle over whether Google search and other products are biased against conservatives. Republican members largely criticized the company for burying conservative websites in search results and amplifying criticism of conservative policies—accusations that Google has repeatedly denied. Democrats only poured fuel on the fire by spending their allotted five minutes helping Pichai shoot down those trumped-up claims, which are hard to prove either way thanks to the company's black box algorithms. The rhetorical tennis match left precious little time for committee members to explore in any detail the urgent questions around Google's interest in building a censored search engine for China, the company's bulk data collection practices, its recent security breaches, or issues related to competition and antitrust regulation.
Like earlier House hearings with tech leaders, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, the day proved heavy on theatrics and light on substance—complete with audience appearances by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and Roger Stone, the conservative provocateur who now finds himself at the center of the Russia probe.
The hearing was more than a missed opportunity for both lawmakers and members of the public. It was a foreboding reminder of Congress's continued technological ignorance, and a sign that while lawmakers almost unilaterally agree that something must be done about tech giants' tremendous power, they remain unwilling to set aside partisan squabbles to actually do anything about it.
Pichai began his testimony by insisting that he leads Google "without political bias."
"We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions—and we have no shortage of them among our own employees," the soft-spoken CEO said in his opening remarks.
But that didn't stop lawmakers from bombarding him with anecdotes that suggested otherwise. Why is it, wondered Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), that when he Googled the Republicans' proposed healthcare bill in 2017, only negative stories popped up? Rep. Steve King (R-IA) asked Pichai why his granddaughter saw negative news about him on her iPhone. When Pichai informed him that Google doesn't make iPhones, King offered lamely, "It might have been an Android." Meanwhile, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) cited a report by PJ Media that claims 96 percent of search results for President Trump are from liberal media sites, a stat that has previously been debunked .
As Republicans leveled baseless accusations against Pichai, though, some Democrats squandered their time defending Google, a corporate juggernaut that is more than deserving of deep examination. Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California lobbed a softball at Pichai, asking him to walk through how search works. Pichai explained that Google's algorithms crawl the web for keywords and rank pages based on more than 200 signals including relevancy, freshness, and popularity. “So it’s not some little man sitting behind the curtain figuring out what we’re going to show the user?" Lofgren replied, perhaps sarcastically, but certainly not helpfully.
Later, Rep. Ted Lieu, also of California, carried all the weight for Pichai with a stunt that compared search results for Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) to results for Rep. King. He found that the results for Scalise mostly turned up stories about his book, while results for King mostly called him a bigot. "If you want positive search results, do positive things," Lieu warned his colleagues, reserving almost no scrutiny for the man actually seated in the witness chair.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The long-awaited hearing followed months of similar conservative finger-pointing in Silicon Valley’s direction. Until Tuesday, Pichai had mostly avoided the spotlight, opting instead to meet with House majority leader Kevin McCarthy and other conservatives in closed-door meetings. The California congressman became one of Google’s harshest critics after reports surfaced that Google search was listing “Nazism” as a core ideology of the California GOP. The error was due to a rogue Wikipedia edit, which Google surfaced in its search results and quickly corrected. But the conservative rage only grew from there.
Recently, a series of leaks have stoked outrage in far-right circles. The Daily Caller, for example, obtained internal chats among Google employees, in which one engineer suggested minimizing the visibility of sites like Breitbart and The Daily Caller. Another executive rejected the idea for fear of being accused of liberal bias, and Google says the suggestion was never implemented. But The Daily Caller held the conversation up as an example of Google’s ethos of conservative censorship. Incoming Missouri senator Josh Hawley even called for an investigation.
Breitbart, meanwhile, has obtained leaked video and internal Google emails that it argues prove Google's liberal bias. In one newly leaked batch of emails, Google employees are directed to monitor Breitbart for hate speech that violates Google's policies. Such violations could have impacted Google ads served on Breitbart's page. But far from proving that Google employees executed on this supposed scheme, the emails show that in fact, Google executives said they found it "tough to prove that Breitbart is Hate Speech." Google says this was part of a routine review of publishers conducted by its advertising team.
Google has gone to great lengths to court conservatives since President Trump took office. In leaked audio of a meeting from March obtained by WIRED’s Nitasha Tiku, the company’s director of public policy, Adam Kovacevich, touts Google’s recent outreach to Republican think tanks and lawmakers and defends Google’s sponsorship of the Conservative Political Action Conference. “I think one of the directives we've gotten very clearly from Sundar, his leadership is to build deeper relationships with conservatives,” Kovacevich says on the recording. He goes on to call House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte “one of our most helpful champions.”
Goodlatte hardly cozied up to Pichai during the hearing, noting in his opening remarks that Google collects enough data to make the National Security Agency blush. And yet, during his time as chairman of the committee, Goodlatte has done little to advance consumer privacy protections that might limit Google's vast data collection operation.
The committee learned little about how Google uses those troves of data in advertising or tracks its users' locations, thanks to flawed and overheated questioning that oversimplified the company’s data collection practices. At one point, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) raised his voice and demanded that Pichai tell him whether Google can track his phone as it moves around the room. Of course, Google services like Maps can do that, but such tracking would depend on a user’s settings. Rather than allowing Pichai to explain, however, Poe chastised him. “You make $100 million a year,” Poe said. “You should be able to answer that question.”
Despite the hearing's shortcomings, there were some telling moments. Often, though, they had more to do with what Pichai didn't say than what he did. Rep. Karen Handel (R-GA) asked Pichai if he thinks there are any categories of data that users should have to opt in to have collected. This is a key question at the center of an ongoing debate about a federal privacy bill. By and large, tech companies prefer to let users opt out of data collection—which they sometimes forget to do or don't know how to do—rather than requiring them to agree to that data collection at the outset. At a Senate hearing in September, Google's chief privacy officer said Google didn't support requiring users to opt in for all data collection.
Pichai took a similarly evasive approach to questions about Google's interest in China. He was asked repeatedly about a Google project called Dragonfly, through which the company is experimenting with a censored search engine for China. Google famously pulled out of search in China in 2010 over concerns about censorship and surveillance. But when faced with questions about Dragonfly, Pichai mostly said that the company has no plans to enter China at the moment and will be transparent if it ever does.
One by one, members of the committee accepted that answer as enough, and quickly advanced to the next outrage. It wasn't until Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) homed in on the topic that Pichai's rote answers started to sound hollow. In the most compelling few minutes of the hearing, Cicilline asked whether any employees are currently attending product meetings on Dragonfly. Pichai didn't say.
"We have undertaken an internal effort, but right now there are no plans to launch a search service in China necessarily," he replied.
Cicilline asked if Google employees are talking to members of the Chinese government. Again, Pichai answered a question that hadn't been asked. "Currently we are not in discussions around launching a search product in China," he said.
Cicilline asked again. Again, Pichai declined to offer a yes or no. Finally, Cicilline asked whether Pichai would rule out "launching a tool for surveillance and censorship in China." Pichai's answer said nothing and everything all at once.
"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 said. "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."
It's the kind of non-answer on an issue of international human rights that ought to demand further questions from lawmakers, particularly lawmakers who purport to be concerned about censorship and surveillance. Too bad Republicans and Democrats of the House Judiciary Committee were too busy battling each other to notice.
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