The Industry

Google’s Web of Confusion

Congress was befuddled by how the search giant works. That’s exactly why they need to regulate it.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai smiles in profile for the press cameras as he arrives to testify during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on Tuesday.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai arrives to testify during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in D.C. on Tuesday. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

In a congressional hearing Tuesday that teetered between drama and farce as members of Congress attempted to grill Google CEO Sundar Pichai, one exchange managed to capture both moods. It also neatly illustrated the paradox of entrusting befuddled legislators with the complex task of regulating perhaps the world’s most powerful information broker.

Texas Rep. Ted Poe, a Republican, glowered from the dais at Pichai. “I have an iPhone,” he said, holding up an iPhone. “If I move from here and go over there and sit with my Democratic friends—which’ll make them real nervous—does Google track my movement?” As Pichai tried to think of how to respond, Poe moved in for the kill. “It’s either yes or no,” he said, his voice rising in aggravation. The Google chief began to stammer out an answer about how he needed more information, but Poe wasn’t having it. “It’s not a trick question! You know, you make $100 million a year, you ought to be able to answer that question!”

On one level, the scene was classic drama: a fed-up lawmaker demanding straight answers from a cagey tech geek who refused to answer the simplest of questions. It’s just the kind of accountability that Silicon Valley has been lacking. But it was also absurd. The reason Pichai couldn’t give a simple answer is because it wasn’t a simple question. Poe was asking him about an iPhone—a device famously made by a rival company that does not come with any Google software installed. Whether Google can track him, then, depends on what apps Poe has installed, what permissions he has granted them, and whether he has GPS turned on.

The moment was emblematic of a hearing in which representatives’ zeal for grandstanding was often undermined by their technological illiteracy. Much of the session was taken up by Republican committee members’ allegations that Google is somehow skewing its products or search results to benefit Democrats—a concern that may be understandable but receives attention far out of proportion to the evidence backing it. (Grasping for such evidence Tuesday, GOP lawmakers came up instead with a slew of self-owns.) It’s also unlikely to lead to successful legislation, given that Democrats are about to retake the House.

But the hearing also brought forth a more bipartisan beef with Google’s data collection, location tracking, and privacy policies—one in which Congress’ bewilderment only underscores the need for it to act.

While Poe’s question was poorly framed, the reality is that Google probably is tracking the movements of many iPhone users, and a lot of them probably have no better understanding of how that works than Poe does. To the tech-savvy, the ignorance built into Poe’s line of attack came across as underscoring the lawmaker’s ability to intelligently regulate a company such as Google. But any of Poe’s fellow Luddites who happened to catch the exchange probably came away thinking it was Pichai who had been cornered and exposed.

Poe was a stand-in for probably the majority of Americans: They sense that the big internet companies are doing nefarious things with their data, but they can’t articulate just what those things are. Also firmly in this camp was Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat, who informed Pichai, “I use your apparatus often,” before asking why Google doesn’t have some kind of “online school” where “you could log in and, kind of, ask questions” of individual Google reps.

Tempting as it is to mock members of Congress whose questions evinced confusion (Poe was not the last to mistake the iPhone for a Google product), the lesson here is not just that our lawmakers are old and out-of-touch. That neither Poe nor most Americans understand how Google’s vast digital surveillance network operates is not an indictment of them; it’s an indictment of Google.

Yes, the company offers a “privacy checkup” that walks users through an array of settings, as Pichai pointed out to lawmakers. But like rival Facebook and others in the online advertising game, it also tracks and targets people in all kinds of ways that remain opaque even to industry experts. These companies benefit from our ignorance because it’s easier to use their services when we’re not fully aware of the trade-offs to our privacy. And to some extent, they also benefit from Congress’ ignorance because it allows them to dismiss tough questions on technicalities.

In the long run, though, legislators’ inchoate frustration about internet privacy seems likely to curdle into resolve. Poe himself sang the praises of Europe’s landmark privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation, and said that the United States should be embarrassed at “playing second fiddle to the Europeans” when it comes to protecting individuals’ privacy.

Privacy regulation as patriotism is exactly the sort of framing that could finally lead to bipartisan action. Poe may have gotten all the details wrong, but he got the big picture right: The correct response to Congress’s confusion on data privacy is legislation that compels tech companies to make their data privacy policies less confusing.