When it emerged late last week that Google employees discussed manipulating search results to combat prejudice and Islamophobia, the timing of the report couldn’t have been more inconvenient: a video had recently leaked showing Google executives lamenting Donald Trump’s election in 2016; Google CEO Sundar Pichai was under fire for refusing to testify at a Senate hearing; and the president, who already suspects Google of anti-conservative bias, reportedly may issue an executive order targeting Big Tech over antitrust issues.
So, even though Google (googl) had already chalked up the latest report to a brainstorming session that didn’t bear fruit, it’s no surprise that Pichai moved quickly to address the idea that Google staffers are putting their liberal bias into action.
“Recent news stories reference an internal email to suggest that we would compromise the integrity of our Search results for a political end,” Pichai wrote in an email to employees, as reported by CNN Saturday. “This is absolutely false. We do not bias our products to favor any political agenda. The trust our users place in us is our greatest asset and we must always protect it. If any Googler ever undermines that trust, we will hold them accountable.”
“We build products for people of every background and belief, and we have strong policies to ensure that our products remain free of bias,” he continued. “As we head into election season in the U.S., it’s worth reaffirming that commitment. While we will stay true to our long-held principles, Google itself is and must continue to be non-partisan.”
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is due to meet with state attorneys general on Tuesday, to discuss Trump’s allegations that social media companies suppress right-leaning voices, as well as issues such as online privacy.
Although most conservatives think Silicon Valley has a left-leaning bias, there is as yet no firm evidence to suggest Google does manipulate results to promote a liberal viewpoint.
And even if the White House did decide to push harder on the issue, it would likely run into the First Amendment, which guarantees platforms such as Google the right to express themselves through their results as they see fit.
However, the antitrust threat is one that must be particularly alarming to a company such as Google, which—as proven in repeated judgements over in the EU—has a history of abusing its market-dominating positions in search and mobile operating systems. The draft executive order that was reported on Saturday seems to lump “online platform bias” in with the competition issues that would normally concern antitrust investigators, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out if the order becomes official.
It’s too late for Google to keep its head down on the bias issue, but Pichai must be hoping that no more embarrassing reports come out in the next while.