Google CEO Sundar Pichai completed his much-anticipated testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on December 11—the culmination of months of tension between lawmakers in the US and abroad and one of the world’s largest and most recognizable companies. In short, Pichai’s hearing laid bare the gulf in understanding between Washington and Silicon Valley, while doing little to provide a path forward.
The Story So Far
While Google has largely avoided the recent public scrutiny directed towards fellow tech figureheads Twitter and Facebook (for their role in the Russian election meddling scandals), the company is hardly a stranger to audiences with Congress – a spokesperson confirmed the company has testified 22 times in the past decade for a variety of reasons, most relating to accusations of anticompetitive behavior. The company, however, neglected to attend the Senate hearing regarding the Russian inquiry after initially declining to send an executive more powerful than senior vice president for global affairs (and top lawyer) Kent Walker.
Lawmakers, in turn, began to increase pressure on Google. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House Majority Leader who is a longtime critic of Silicon Valley, was joined by other House Republicans in criticizing the search and advertising behemoth. In a statement, McCarthy said 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.”
McCarthy’s accusations, though made without sources to back up his claims, gained some credence when leaked video from a Google staff meeting “showed several senior Google executives, including Mr. Pichai, expressing their alarm [at Donald Trump’s election],” while additional leaked emails from low-level employees discussed “[altering] search results to counter [the president’s] travel ban.”
Tensions have not been strictly partisan, with additional concerns coming from the other side of the aisle. Democrats, too, have increasingly found Google’s “size and influence” to be problematic, echoing complaints from European lawmakers that have resulted in massive fines to the company.
The friction was great enough for Pichai to schedule September meetings with McCarthy and 11 additional House Republicans, as well as a session with House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, in which he explained the behavior of Google’s search algorithm while denying political bias. After McCarthy voiced expectations that Pichai 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 made assurances that he would “[testify] before the House Judiciary Committee in due course.”
Republican distrust was on full display at the December 11 hearing. Politicians “[raised] a broad array of tough questions on the search giant’s market power, plans to relaunch service in China, and whether the site suppresses conservative content,” with “concern over the company’s commitment to free expression” emerging as a common theme. Pichai was quick to defend accusations of censorship against his company, reaffirming “[Google] algorithms have no notion of political sentiment,” before explaining the 200-plus factors that determine search results.
Democrats were quick to reject notions of anti-conservative bias, with Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York calling the accusations a “complete illegitimate fantasy.” Representative Ted Lieu of California rebuked complaints about negative search results raised by Iowa’s Steve King as a result of his political views, telling King to avoid blaming “…Google or Facebook or Twitter, [and to] consider blaming yourself.”
But Democrats were aligned with their Republican counterparts in apprehension about Google’s market size, privacy policies, and data handling. Nadler pointed to “legitimate questions regarding the company’s policies and practices, including with respect to content moderation and the protection of user data privacy,” as some of his major issues.
Some lawmakers zeroed-in on whether Google tracks location without consent – Representative Ted Poe of Texas accused Pichai of being evasive about location tracking when Pichai declined to give a yes or no answer when Poe asked if Google tracked his movements if he walked back and forth across a room. The New York Times reported Mr. Pichai made clear that “Google offered users controls for limiting the collection of location data and did not sell user data, though he avoided saying whether the company uses location data when it sells advertising.”
Pichai also insisted that Google would not operate in China with a censored search engine, calling the company’s Project Dragonfly initiative an “internal effort.” But he refused to entirely discount the idea of doing business in China, calling it Google’s “duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information.” Upwards of 50 human rights organizations have “signed a letter to Mr. Pichai demanding that the company stop working on Project Dragonfly,” calling the project “troubling.”
Whether Pichai’s testimony was enough to assuage McCarthy, who characterized the meeting as a chance to learn if “…America’s technology companies [are] serving as instruments of freedom or instruments of control,” is unclear. But Pichai appeared to acquit himself well. Some elected officials were even complimentary of Google, calling it “a success story of America’s free enterprise system,” and “the story of the American dream,” (while assuring Pichai they “do not want to impose burdensome regulations on [its] industry,” in the words of Representative Mike Johnson, Republican of Louisiana.)
Pressure on the company has shifted rather than dissipated, with employees organizing walkouts to protest internal handling of discrimination and sexual harassment complaints; the company copped to a data breach with its Google Plus app in October, which did little to alleviate concerns about its data handling practices.
But the inquiry revealed few next steps from either party. Privacy will likely remain a point of emphasis for Democrats, who are set to take over the majority in the House of Representatives in 2019. Perhaps to soothe misgivings from both parties on the subject, Pichai expressed support for “well-crafted” legislation like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. And Pichai and Google have proven to be on board with the idea of consistent, national privacy laws, rather than the current state-by-state approach (largely, it seems, out of self-interest). Pichai’s appearance before lawmakers may have served a temporary purpose, but the long-term implications remain uncertain.