Google CEO finally grilled by Congress over data & censorship, but conservatives try to make it all about them
According to CNBC, this week Google CEO Sundar Pichai faced three and a half hours of questions from the House Judiciary Committee about political bias on Google’s platforms, plans for a censored search app in China, and privacy practices. This marks Pichai’s first appearance before Congress as the tech giant refused to send him or Google co-founder and Alphabet, Inc. CEO Larry Page to a hearing on tech companies and foreign meddling earlier in the year. Senators saw the refusal to participate in that hearing as a refusal to be held accountable, but Tuesday’s hearing marked just how far we have come in a year where Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has began to admit his platform’s role in enabling Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Pichai was able to mostly remain calm over the course of the questioning, offering measured answers to Congress’s inquisitions while slipping and dodging others. Officially, the meeting was titled “Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices” but many of the Republican representatives used it to probe whether or not Google’s search results produced responses that were biased against a conservative point of view. Republican lawmakers and Donald Trump have consistently accused Google and other tech giants of the suppression of conservative voices.
Google has also been under fire for the way that its search results often placed its own services ahead of other websites, which ultimately cost the company a $2.7 billion antitrust fine from the European Union. According to StatCounter, Google’s search engine occupies approximately 90 percent of the world’s market share, but how the search engine’s processes work has been difficult to discern. Democratic Representative David Cicilline from Rhode Island asked Pichai if Google would commit to ending discriminatory practices against their competition after calling for an open and decentralized internet, and Pichai responded, “I strongly support an open, decentralized internet that is free of powerful gatekeepers with the ability to discriminate against rivals, threaten innovation or harm consumers” while denying that Google uses discriminatory practices in its search engine.
Pichai also denied that the company has any current plans for a censored Chinese search engine, telling lawmakers, “Right now, we have no plans to launch search in China… (Information is) an important human right,” and didn’t explain much about the original plans. Those were first reported on by The Intercept, which revealed how the proposed engine would block certain phrases deemed too controversial by the Chinese government including “human rights” and “student protest” and would also link users’ web searches to their phone numbers. This led Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas to state her concern that Google’s plans in China could help aid in oppressing Chinese people who are “looking for a lifeline of freedom and democracy.”
One issue that did not come up in the hearing was the cancellation of Google’s contract with the Pentagon to review drone footage via artificial intelligence, which had been codenamed Project Maven. Project Maven was canceled after employee protests and resignations at Google, after which Pichal issued an artificial intelligence code of conduct that stated the company would work with the government and the military on cybersecurity and training, but not on weapons or surveillance that violated “internationally accepted norms.”