The biggest names in tech have increasingly found themselves in lawmakers’ crosshairs at home and abroad. Facebook and Twitter have borne the brunt of the scrutiny domestically, whether for data misuse, failure to prevent harmful actions or hate speech, accusations of inaction with regard to foreign election tampering, and more.
Google had largely avoided the same treatment until recently, when lawmakers called on the company to testify in Washington for a perceived anti-conservative bias.
Why Were Google Representatives Called to Testify?
The latest spat was the culmination of pressure from the right beginning with the president, who in a late August series of tweets claimed Google suppressed content like his State of the Union address while promoting Barack Obama’s inaugural address in 2009 (a charge Google categorically denied). Other Republicans joined the fray soon after.
This push was led by an outspoken critic of Silicon Valley – Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House Majority Leader, who was joined by additional Republicans in the house. McCarthy accused Google in a September 11 tweet of giving “a ‘silent donation’ to a left-wing group” that is anti-Trump, working with the Chinese and the Russians to censor internet content (while cancelling a contract with the United States military), and ignoring the Senate hearing attended by Facebook and Twitter executives. McCarthy further elaborated in a statement that “Google has a lot of questions to answer about reports of bias in its search results, violations of user privacy, anticompetitive behavior, and business dealings with repressive regimes like China.”
While McCarthy did not cite sources for his accusations, conservative politicians have received some recent fuel for their argument – directly from Google’s speak-your-mind culture. A leaked video of a staff meeting “showed several senior Google executives, including Mr. Pichai, expressing their alarm [at Donald Trump’s election],” while leaked emails from low-level Google employees contained discussions about ways to “alter search results to counter [the president’s] travel ban” (though Google was “adamant” that no one involved in the discussions would actually have had the clout to make the change).
Concerns, however, are not strictly partisan. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed concern over Google’s “size and influence,” with worries centering around privacy and potential antitrust action.
Google’s Long History with Lawmakers
With 90 percent ownership of the world’s search market, Google is no stranger to congressional inquiries. Becca Rutkoff, a Google spokeswoman, said in a statement that “the company [has] testified before Congress 22 times since 2008,” mostly regarding accusations of anticompetitive behavior, and are “happy to continue explaining [their] products and practices” to lawmakers.
Google had managed to avoid the harsh spotlight that Twitter and Facebook faced three weeks earlier in a Senate hearing on Russian meddling via social media. The company was invited to, but did not attend, that meeting after declining to send an executive more powerful than senior vice president for global affairs (and top lawyer) Kent Walker.
The no-show upset lawmakers, ratcheting up the pressure on the company. Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at New York University Stern School of Business and co-founder of the Gartner L2 business research firm, told the New York Times that refusing to appear was the “worst business decision of 2018,” likening it to “[poking] the bear.”
Rivals Fueling Claims?
Google believes that its rivals are, to some extent, behind the heightened scrutiny. A report from the nonprofit Campaign for Accountability, who have long history of research critical of Google (and received a donation from Oracle senior vice president Ken Glueck in 2016), was cited by lawmakers in the Twitter and Facebook-centric Senate hearing.
Fueling additional concerns at Google, the New York Times reported that Yelp reached out to the White House as recently as September, with Yelp senior vice president for policy Luther Lowe emailing “a draft presidential order instructing antitrust officials to recommend ways to protect competition and clamp down on content bias on internet search and social media sites,” though Lowe denied creating the document. The company has been a thorn in Google’s side for years, “[waging] a seven-year battle to get regulatory agencies around the world to investigate Google…[claiming] Google prioritized its own reviews over others, making it much harder for competing reviews sites…to be discovered.”
Google CEO Sundar Pichai met with McCarthy and 11 other House Republicans as part of a weeklong, fear-assuaging trip to DC (he also met with minority House leader Nancy Pelosi) at the end of September. In the meeting with Republican lawmakers, Pichai explained the nature of Google’s constantly-evolving search algorithm, which the company insists does not consider political ideology or categorize sites on party lines. McCarthy voiced expectations that Pichai will need to attend a congressional hearing before the end of 2018 to “address questions of political bias, as well as Google’s potential plans to re-enter the Chinese market.”
Pichai issued a subsequent statement that Google “[remains] committed to continuing an active dialogue with members from both sides of the aisle, working proactively with Congress on a variety of issues, explaining how our products help millions of American consumers and businesses, and answering questions as they arise,” before confirming that he was “personally committed to testifying before the House Judiciary Committee in due course.” Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, confirmed that Pichai also agreed to participate in a meeting between high-profile tech leaders and President Trump.
Experts will be watching Pichai’s future hearing carefully. It is clear that Google is no longer insulated from heightened scrutiny. While the meetings seem to have temporarily released pressure on Google, its stature will continue to invite attention as lawmakers grapple with the issues presented by tech’s biggest companies.