On Tuesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to testify in a hearing on the company’s “data collection, use and filtering practices.” Pichai committed no grave errors, though some of his answers were revealing of how the company views its responsibilities.
Over the course of the 3½-hour interrogation, Pichai was more prepared and adept at answering Republicans’ questions about “filtering practices” than anything else. Conservatives have long alleged that Google and other big tech companies like Facebook and Twitter are biased against conservative viewpoints on their platforms. Pichai delivered his staunchest rebuttals when it came to such allegations, categorically denying them outright.
At the beginning of the hearing, Texas Rep. Lamar Smith tried to needle Pichai with a series of studies and statistics claiming to show suppression of pro-Trump viewpoints in Google search results. Smith cited a claim from conservative outlet PJ Media that 96 percent of results for a search on news about Trump were from left-wing media and findings from psychologist Robert Epstein that Google could have swung 2.6 million votes in Hillary Clinton’s favor during the 2016 election. Pichai responded that Google had investigated the specific findings, which allowed him to pivot the line of questioning to a debate over the studies’ methodologies all while maintaining that Google in no way discriminates against conservatives.
Later on, Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot brought up his own grievances, claiming that Google had given lower page ranks to positive coverage of bills to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and to the 2017 Republican tax cut. “I understand the frustration at seeing negative news.
I see it on me on Google,” Pichai responded, performing a bit of rhetorical jiujitsu. “There are times you can search on Google, and page after page there is negative news, which we reflect.” Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat, later helped to underscore that point by complaining in jest that Breitbart and the Daily Caller seemed to dominate the first page of search results when he Googled himself.
These allegations of conservative bias also produced the hearing’s most glaring gaffes—from the representatives. They played into criticisms that Congress lacks basic knowledge of the tech industry. In arguing that Google relies too heavily on “liberal” Wikipedia, Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert admitted that his staff was altering his own Wikipedia page every night for two weeks, only to be rebuffed by the site’s editors. (Wikipedia guidelines state that editing an employer’s page is a “conflict of interest.”) Iowa Rep. Steve King, after issuing several stern threats to impose regulations on Google to deal with political bias, ended his time asking why his granddaughter had come across a profane meme featuring his picture while using an iPhone. Pichai responded, “Congressman, iPhone is made by a different company.”
Many Democratic members used all or a portion of their time questioning Pichai to refute bias allegations coming from Republicans, rather than pressing Google on a range of other criticisms that the company has faced. California Rep. Ted Lieu spent his time arguing that Google is a private company entitled to free-speech protections, a point that he’s made at several previous hearings, and lobbed softball questions like “You have the absolute right to promote dog and cat videos … isn’t that correct?” California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat, did ask why Google produces pictures of Donald Trump for the image search “idiot.” Pichai explained that Google uses over 200 signals for conducting searches, though he didn’t address how people are able to game the system to influence image searches with a tactic called “Google bombing.”
However, when Pichai answered questions on other issues from both Republican and Democratic members of Congress, he was vaguer and strayed away from definitive statements. The representatives generally had more luck gathering insights with these lines of questioning as well.
For example, Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal applauded Google’s decision to discontinue some of its forced arbitration practices, which amount to mandating in contracts that employees must handle all complaints against the company in private meetings, rather than giving them the option to litigate in public court. However, Jayapal pointed out that Google only got rid of the policy in cases of sexual misconduct and asked Pichai if he would commit to ending forced arbitration in other cases. The CEO said that he was “happy to think about more changes” but notably avoided making any other commitments, even when Jayapal pressed him on the issue.
Multiple members of Congress on both sides of the aisle also pressed Pichai on reports that Google has been developing a censored search engine for users in China, an effort that the company calls “Project Dragonfly.” Pichai acknowledged that there was such an effort but said that there were no current plans to follow through with the project. He also revealed, during questioning from Pennsylvania Rep. Keith Rothfus, that Google at one point had more than 100 people working on the effort. Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline also asked, “Will you, Mr. Pichai, rule out launching a tool for surveillance and censorship in China while you’re CEO of Google?” The CEO talked about the importance of providing information but would not make any commitments on this issue either.
Near the end of the hearing, California Rep. Eric Swalwell even seemed to elicit Pichai’s support for a national privacy law in the U.S. “I’m of the opinion that we are better off with more of an overarching data-protection framework for users, and I think it would be good to do,” Pichai said. When asked about the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, a thorough set of consumer-privacy policies, the CEO called it “a well-thought-out, crafted piece of legislation.”