Tuesday's House Judiciary Committee had the opportunity to question one of the world's most powerful people – Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, the company that filters all the information in the world. And they blew it up.
Over the course of three and a half hours, members of the committee argued over a party struggle over whether Google search and other products are biased against conservatives. Republican members widely criticized the company for hiding conservative websites in search results and criticizing conservative policies – allegations that Google has repeatedly denied. Democrats only donated fire by giving their five minutes to Pichai to quash these high-profile claims that are hard to prove thanks to the company's black-box algorithms. The rhetorical tennis match left little time for committee members to examine in detail the pressing issues surrounding Google's interest in building a censored search engine for China, the company's mass data collection procedures, its recent security breaches, and competition and antitrust issues
As with previous House hearings with technology leaders, including Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter boss Jack Dorsey, the day proved extremely stressful for the staging of theatrics and light in substance ̵
The hearing was more than a missed opportunity for both the legislator and the public. It was a startling reminder of Congress's continuing technological ignorance and a sign that lawmakers almost unanimously agree that something must be done to counter the enormous power of technology giants, but are unwilling to put aside partisan battles to do something about it.
Pichai began his testimony by insisting that he leads Google "without political prejudice."
"We are a company that provides platforms for different perspectives and opinions – and we have no shortage of it among our own employees," said the speaker CEO in his opening speech.
But that did not stop the lawmaker from bombarding him with anecdotes that suggested something else. Why is it, asks MP Steve Chabot (R-OH), that when he wentogle the Republicans' proposed healthcare bill in 2017, only negative stories emerged? Rep. Steve King (R-IA) asked Pichai why his granddaughter saw negative news about him on her iPhone. When Pichai told him that Google does not make iPhones, King offered lamely, "Maybe it was an Android." Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) cited a report by PJ Media stating that 96 percent of the search results for President Trump come from liberal media sites, a previously debunked status.
However, as the Republicans have filed baseless allegations, Pichai, some Democrats have wasted their time defending Google, a corporate juggernaut that more than deserves a thorough review. Republican Zoe Lofgren of California hit a softball in Pichai and asked him to go over how the search works. Pichai explained that Google's algorithms search the Internet for keywords and rate pages based on more than 200 signals including relevance, timeliness, and popularity. "So it's not a small man sitting behind the curtain and figuring out what we're going to show the user?" Lofgren answered perhaps sarcastically, but certainly not helpful.
Later, MP Ted Lieu, also from California, starred All Pichai's weight with a stunt comparing the search results for Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) to the results for Rep. King. He found out that the results for Scalise mostly showed stories about his book, while results for King were mostly called He is a fanatic. "If you want positive results, do positive things," Lieu warned his colleagues, paying little heed to the man who actually sat in the witness chair.
Maybe it should not have been a surprise. The long-awaited hearing followed for months with similar conservative pointers to Silicon Valley: by Tuesday, Pichai had largely avoided the spotlight and opted instead for a meeting with Kevin McCarthy, the house's majority leader, in closed doors. The California congressman became one the harshest critic of Google, after reports surfaced that Google's search listed "Nazism" as the core ideology of the California GOP. The error was due to an unfair Wikipedia edit that Google appeared in its search results and quickly corrected. The conservative rage, however, only grew from there.
Recently, a series of leaks has sparked outrage in far-right circles. For example, The Daily Caller received internal chats with Google employees, in which an engineer suggested minimizing the visibility of sites like Breitbart and The Daily Caller. Another leader rejected the idea for fear of being charged with liberal bias, and Google says the proposal has never been implemented. However, The Daily Caller considered the conversation an example of Google's conservative censorship. The incoming Missouri senator, Josh Hawley, even called for an investigation.
Breitbart has received leaked videos and internal Google emails that claim to prove Google's liberal bias. In a newly leaked number of emails, Google employees are directed to monitor Breitbart for hate speech that violates Google's policies. Such violations could have affected Google ads served on Breitbart's site. The e-mails, however, show by no means that Google employees have acted after this supposed approach. In fact, Google executives said it was "hard to prove that Breitbart Hate Speech is". Google says this is part of a routine review of publishers conducted by its advertising team.
Since the inauguration of President Trump, Google has made great efforts to bring conservatives to justice. In a leaked tone of a meeting held in March by WIRED's Nitasha Tiku, Adam Kovacevich, director of the company's public order department, announces Google's recent exposure to Republican think tanks and legislators, and defends Google's sponsorship of the Conservative Political Action Conference , "I think one of the directives that we received from Sundar very clearly is to have deeper relations with conservatives," says Kovacevich in the recording. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, calls him "one of our most helpful champions."
Goodlatte found little cause for Pichai during the hearing and stated in his introductory remarks that Google collects enough data to blush the National Security Agency. However, during his time as chair of the committee, Goodlatte did little to improve privacy for consumers, which could limit Google's extensive data collection efforts.
The committee has learned little about how Google uses this data in advertising, or its data tracks user locations, thanks to flawed and overheated surveys that greatly simplified the company's data collection practices. At some point, MP Ted Poe (R-TX) raised his voice and demanded that Pichai tell him if Google could track his cell phone while he was in the room. Of course, Google services like Google Maps can do this, but such tracking would depend on a user's preferences. Instead of letting Pichai explain, Poe chastised him. "They make $ 100 million a year," Poe said. "You should be able to answer that question."
Despite the shortcomings of the hearing, there were some insightful moments. Often, however, they had more to do with what Pichai did not say than what he did. Rep. Karen Handel (R-GA) asked Pichai if he believes that there are data categories that users would have to select in in in order to be able to collect them. This is a key issue at the center of an ongoing debate on a federal law on data protection. By and large, technology companies prefer that users reject the data collection – something they sometimes forget or do not know how to do – rather than requiring them to initially agree to this data collection. At a Senate hearing in September, Google's privacy advocate said Google did not endorse users having to choose all the data collection.
Pichai responded similarly to questions that concerned Google's interest in China. He was repeatedly asked about a Google project called Dragonfly, through which the company experimented with a censored search engine for China. Google withdrew its search in China in 2010 for censorship and surveillance concerns. However, when asked about Dragonfly, Pichai usually said that the company has no plans to enter China at the moment, and if so, will be transparent.
By and by, the members of the committee accepted this answer as sufficient, and quickly advanced to the next outrage. It was not until Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) who focused on the topic that Pichai's pronounced answers sounded hollow. In the most convincing minutes of the interview, Cicilline asked if employees are currently attending Dragonfly product meetings. Pichai did not say it.
"We have made internal efforts, but at the moment there are no plans to start a search service in China," he replied.
Cicilline asked if Google employees speak with members of Google the Chinese government. Again, Pichai answered a question that had not been asked. "Currently, we are not discussing the introduction of a search product in China," he said.
Cicilline asked again. Again, Pichai refused a yes or no. Finally, Cicilline asked if Pichai would "rule out the introduction of an instrument for surveillance and censorship in China." Pichai's answer said nothing and all at once.
"We have a stated mission to provide users with information, and we always believe it is our duty to explore ways to give users access to information," Pichai said. "I have a commitment, but as I said earlier, we will be very thoughtful and committed to development."
This is the kind of non-response to a question of international human rights, which should call for more questions from lawmakers, especially lawmakers who pretend to be worried about censorship and surveillance. Too bad Republicans and Democrats of the House's Judiciary Committee were too busy to make an effort to memorize it.
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