Lawmakers Grill Google CEO Sundar Pichai. But He Emerges Merely Singed
Lawmakers pummeled Google CEO Sundar Pichai during a Congressional hearing on Tuesday, accusing the search giant of producing politically biased results, hoovering up sensitive user data, and collaborating with China’s authoritarian government.
But Pichai calmly weathered the storm and assured members of the House Judiciary Committee that Google is merely misunderstood. Google employees cannot influence search results, he insisted; users can opt out of data collection; and there are no “current” plans for a censored search engine in China—although he left the door open to one in the future.
At the same time, Pichai repeated a feel-good message aimed at comforting angry politicians demanding immediate action: Like any company, Google can and will improve.
As expected, Republicans hammered Pichai on the company’s alleged political bias, some worried that Google’s employees—assumed to be overwhelmingly left-leaning—tilt the search results to be anti-GOP and anti-Trump.
While lawmakers generally didn’t support more regulation, they did call for Google to conduct more internal oversight related to bias and that, if not, it could suffer some undefined consequences.
“You run off conservatives, you embrace liberals,” Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican, told Pichai. ”It’s time Google was not immune and held accountable.”
Democrats spent much time criticizing Republicans for using the hearing to repeatedly bringing up the bias topic. Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California, said that if Republicans don’t want to see negative news, there’s a simple solution.
“If you want positive search results, do positive things,” he said. “If you don’t want negative search results, don’t do negative things … if you’re getting bad search results … don’t blame Google or Facebook or Twitter. Consider blaming yourself.”
Pichai explained to lawmakers, some of whom seemed fuzzy about technology, that search results are solely determined by Google’s complex algorithms. He emphasized that no employee or group of employees could influence those results, regardless of their personal beliefs.
When it comes to data collection, Pichai’s answers were far less clear. That’s because data collection depends on the specific apps and devices used.
Google generally tracks the location information of people who use Google Maps, for example. In terms of Gmail, the company stores emails, but it does not have access to that data unless users consent or are the subject of criminal investigations.
Generally speaking, Pichai said that users can opt out of sharing their information with Google by adjusting their privacy settings (though finding them can be a challenge). Google may use data to personalize ads, but it doesn’t sell the data, he added.
After Pichai’s comments, some lawmakers still didn’t understand what data was being collected or how. Some seemed unaware that a person’s IP address could also reveal his or her location or that a phone without service likely could not transmit data.
In a heated moment, Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, asked Pichai if Google could determine via the data on his phone if he moved elsewhere in the room. Pichai struggled to answer the question, saying he’d first need more information.
“I’m shocked you don’t know,” Poe said. “I think Google obviously does!”
Poe also said that the U.S. is “playing second fiddle” to Europe, which earlier this year implemented the General Data Protection Regulation that gives users more power and transparency over what data they share.
“With Americans carrying their smart phones all day and every day, Google is collecting an amount of data on its users that would even make the NSA blush,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the committee’s chairman, adding that users often consent to the terms of service without knowing what’s in it. “Most Americans have no idea the sheer volume of detailed information that is collected.”
Meanwhile, Pichai artfully dodged answering questions about Project Dragonfly, a censored search engine that Google has worked on for China. More than 100 developers have worked on the project, he said, but there is no “current” plan to introduce it, leaving open the possibility that company could premiere it in the future.
“Right now, there are no plans to launch a search engine in China,” Pichai said before offering more details in the future. “I’m happy to consult as well as be transparent to the direction we take to launching a product in China.”