Google CEO Sundar Pichai will be in Congress’ line of fire on Tuesday over the search engine’s alleged political bias and the vast amounts of user data it collects, while trying to avoid any cringeworthy moments.
He is expected to field uncomfortable questions from both parties about topics like search result rankings, a possible expansion into China, and antitrust concerns about big tech companies.
During the U.S. House Judiciary Committee hearing, Democrats will likely focus on the search engine’s influence in the election, given the Russian misinformation that spread online in 2016. Their line of questioning could give the public clues about potential regulation as Democrats take over the U.S. House Representatives.
On the flip side, Republicans also are expected to harp on bias, many of them concerned about Google blocking or downplaying information from GOP-friendly sources. President Donald Trump tweeted about the subject in August, saying: “Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!”
In his prepared opening testimony published online a day before the hearing, Pichai defended Google against the accusations. “I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way,” he said. “To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests.”
Another sensitive topic that will probably come up is Project Dragonfly, a censored search engine that Google is developing for China but has yet to decide whether to actually debut. Many Google employees protested against the project, with some even resigning after learning about it.
The concern surrounding the once-secret project is that Google, in an effort to make nice with China’s government, would block specific information from citizens about sensitive topics like Tiananmen Square and possibly spy on political opponents. Such a search engine would run counter to Google’s self-described mandate to organize all the world’s information and its early do-good motto, “Don’t be evil,” which it has since abandoned.
Pichai’s appearance comes eight months after members of Congress grilled Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg over issues like fake news and Russian misinformation. Except for a few hammerings, Zuckerberg emerged largely unscathed, although the problems for his company have only compounded amid data breaches and its advertising practices.
Pichai and Larry Page, CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, declined an invitation to attend a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in September, prompting members to criticize both for avoiding them. Pichai’s appearance, Google hopes, will help mend the relationship at a time when the company is under increasing political pressure.
Another topic Congress could take the opportunity to explore with Pichai: data collection. What’s being collected? And how is it used? Researchers have already determined that Google collects more information than Facebook, according to a study conducted by Vanderbilt University. The search engine is also the largest ad platform and is expected to generate $39.92 billion in revenue for the year, according to research firm eMarketer. After all, it potentially knows everything from what’s on your calendar, your location, the purchases you’ve made, what you’ve searched for, and the phone numbers you’ve called.
If the hearings with Zuckerberg are any indication, Pichai should prepare for some off-the-wall questions by House members. During those hearings, Zuckerberg was bombarded with queries by members who clearly didn’t understand technology, like one from Sen. Chuck Grassley, who asked if the floppy disks that AOL once mailed in by the millions offered the same service as Facebook. Meanwhile, Sen. Bill Nelson asked how to stop chocolate ads from appearing on his Facebook feed.