Google chief executive Sundar Pichai will answer questions before the House Judiciary Committee today in what has become a critical moment for the company as it deals with a growing list of prickly ethical debates and controversies.
Tuesday’s public testimony will be Pichai’s first before Congress in a year in which many of his tech peers have also traveled to Washington. He notoriously declined an invitation to attend a hearing in September that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey attended. The Senate committee that held that hearing left an empty chair and nameplate in his place.
The hearing should touch on a number of topics, including accusations that the search giant’s algorithms are biased against conservative content. Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube have all denied that their algorithms suppress conservative content — and even said as much in front of this very committee earlier this year.
Another issue that will come up: Google’s controversial plans to launch in China, codenamed Project Dragonfly. The company has drawn harsh criticism over the plan to offer a modified version of its search engine that complies with the Chinese government’s censorship. A leaked prototype of the product blocked search results for terms such as “human rights” and “student protest.” Pichai did did not mention China by name in his written opening remarks, which were released last night.
It’s likely other issues will arise. When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress in April, for example, the questions were wide-ranging. The hearing will start at 10 am ET Tuesday morning and you can follow along live below.
10:02 am ET: Good morning and welcome to our live coverage of Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s congressional testimony. We are still waiting for Pichai to arrive, and most of the seats here reserved for members of the House Judiciary Committee are still empty, but we’ll be under way soon. Alex Jones, the notorious founder of Infowars, is in the audience here. You may remember that he was banned from Google’s YouTube a few months ago …
10:07 am ET: Pichai just entered and looks incredibly happy to be here. He’s smiling, something Mark Zuckerberg did not do when he testified! Pichai shook hands with Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy before sitting down. The committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte just banged the gavel and we’re off.
10:11 am ET: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy says in his opening remarks, “Mr. Pichai, it was necessary to convene this hearing because of the widening gap of distrust between technology companies and the American people,” focusing on allegations of political bias and plans to build a censored search product in China. He then added this: “A free world depends on a free internet. We need to know that Google is part of a free world.”
10:18 am ET: Goodlatte is giving his opening statement and started with Google’s immense reach and power. Google is email, Android and location tracking and mapping. Google touches almost every part of our digital lives. “Google is able to collect an amount of information about its users that would even make the NSA blush,” he said. “Americans have no idea the sheer volume of information that is collected.”
He then moved toward Google’s algorithm, the software that the company uses to return search results. “There are numerous allegations in the news that Google employees have thought about” manipulating the algorithm to favor one political party over the other, he said. This will be a big part of today’s hearing. Pichai will be asked to explain how these algorithms work, and who builds them.
10:29 am ET: Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who is the incoming House Judiciary chair from the Democratic party, is now giving his opening remarks. He is pointing out the lack of evidence conservatives have in their accusations against Google’s political bias, and even if Google did have a bias, says it would be within its rights as a company to have that — just as Sinclair Broadcast Group and Fox News has.
10:31 am ET: Nadler just added that he is also concerned that Google is thinking of building a search engine for China. But then he added something that we’ll probably hear a lot today from the Committee’s Democrats: That this whole discussion over political bias will just “waste more time” and take away from more important topics. This has been a popular talking point for Democrats in previous hearings on this topic, and sounds like we’ll hear it again today.
10:32 am ET: Pichai is giving his opening remarks now. You can read them in full here if you want. “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 be against our core principles and our business interests.” The remarks notably do not include any specific mention of China, despite the fact that the company’s plan to build a censored search product in the country is going to be one of the points of focus of today’s hearings.
10:38 am ET: Opening remarks are over and we’re on to questions. Committee Chair Goodlatte gets to go first. He’s asking Pichai to explain why Google collects so much information about its users. He also asked if Pichai thought users actually read Google’s terms of service. (As far as I can tell, he never actually answered that part.)
10:45 am ET: Nadler now has the floor. He’s bringing up the Google+ data breach revealed yesterday that exposed data of 52.5 million users. He also asked Pichai for his commitment to protecting U.S. elections from the threat of foreign agents such as Russia, which Pichai gave in full.
Nadler wants to know: What legal obligation is the company under to publicly expose those security issues? Pichai started to talk abut how Google “takes privacy seriously,” but Nadler interrupted and pushed back to ask what obligations Google has. Pichai eventually said that Google had to alert users and the necessary authorities of this kind of bug within 72 hours, which he claims it did.
Pichai just acknowledged companies who discover a bug affecting user privacy are required to disclose it in 72 hours.
Google disclosed its first Google+ bug within seven months, its second within three weeks.
— Doug MacMillan (@dmac1) December 11, 2018
10:51 am ET: Rep. Lamar Smith from Texas is up next. He wants to discuss alleged political bias in Google’s algorithms. Pro-Trump content and content about immigration laws have been tagged as hate speech, he says. Not a single right-leaning site appeared on the first page of search results, he continued. (What search results? Not exactly sure.)
Would Google allow an independent, outside entity to study search results to explore for political bias? Pichai says this has already happened. Smith disagreed because he doesn’t believe those studies were independent — Google picked the groups studying the algorithm, he said. Pichai said they were independent. Smith, again, disagreed.
10:59 am ET: Rep. Zoe Lofgren just asked Pichai why a picture of President Donald Trump shows up when you Google the word “idiot.” Pichai then spent a decent chunk of time trying to explain how keywords and search algorithms return search results. “So it’s not some little man sitting behind the curtain figuring out what we’re going to show the users, it’s basically a compilation of what users are generating and trying to sort through that information,” Lofgren concluded.
Her point with all this, apparently, was to prove that algorithms take a number of factors into consideration for returning search results. She concluded by saying that she looks forward to working with Pichai in the future on serious issues facing the company, but that “it’s pretty obvious that bias against conservative voices is not one of them.”
11:12 am ET: Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee is the first to directly ask Pichai today about the company’s plans to build a censored search product in China. Pichai responded categorically that the company right now “has no plans to launch in China” — a statement that goes against earlier reports that the product could launch as soon as this April.
11:24 am ET: Rep. Steve Cohen requested that Google create a tutorial phone line for people using Google search. The amount of human touch some of these representatives expect or demand out of Google’s core products — which only scale because of technology, not people — is remarkable.
Cohen also wanted to know why his recent MSNBC appearances didn’t appear higher in search results. He says he was on MSNBC four times (!) last weekend, and yet when you search his name and the word “news,” you get links to ultra-conservative sites the Daily Caller and Breitbart. “It’s hard for me to fathom being on MSNBC for like eight minutes, each show, four times, and there’s more content on Breitbart news than MSNBC,” he said. “If you’d let me know about that I’d appreciate it.”
11:34 am ET: Rep. Jim Jordan pressed Pichai on an email sent by Google’s head of multicultural marketing encouraging efforts to increase Latino voter turnout in the 2016 elections. Jordan specifically took issue with what he alleged was Google’s configuring its features to aid the efforts in key states, which Pichai denied.
11:40 am ET: Rep. Ted Poe just gave a interesting performance during his five minutes. He held up his iPhone and asked if Google could track his movements if he moved across the room. “Not by default,” Pichai responded, and said that there are certain Google products that might be able to track that info but he’d need to look at the Congressman’s settings.
Poe wanted a yes or no answer. Pichai, again, started to say he’d need to see the settings but Poe interrupted him. “It’s not a trick question! You make $100 million a year, you ought to be able to answer that question.” Pichai said he couldn’t say yes or no without seeing the phone. “I’m shocked you don’t know,” Poe concluded.
11:52 am ET: Alex Jones isn’t the only interesting person in the room this morning. There’s a guy dressed as the Monopoly man sitting behind Pichai and who is visible on the livestream. He’s getting a lot of attention on social media. What a world we live in!
Google must not be tracking all our movements, because they certainly didn’t see me coming! pic.twitter.com/W1281PFgmf
— Ian Madrigal – The Monopoly Man (@wamandajd) December 11, 2018
11:55 am ET: Pichai again categorically denied that the company is planning to launch a search product in China when pressed by Rep. Tom Marino. He said that if the company does plan to launch in China in the future, it will consult widely, including with lawmakers.
12:06 pm ET: Rep. Doug Collins just summed up the attitudes of many lawmakers today when he said that when it comes to Google’s alleged misdoings — “perception is reality.” That’s true whether or not there’s full evidence of all those claims, such as alleged anti-conservative bias. Collins then pressed Pichai about Google’s data collection policies — pointing out that there’s bipartisan concern about those policies on both sides of the aisle.
12:16 pm ET: Pichai just answered the toughest questions yet on the company’s plans in China, which came from Rep. David Cicilline. The CEO refused to commit to not launching a censored search in China in his tenure as chief executive. He did repeat that the company has no current plans to launch in the country, and called the plans thus far “limited efforts internally.” Cicilline said the issue goes beyond China at a time of “rising authoritarianism around the world,” citing a letter from over 50 human rights organization calling for Google to halt all development in the country that complies with the government’s censorship requirements.
12:21 pm ET: Rep. Matt Gaetz from Florida had a very specific target for his allotted five minutes: Google’s liberal employees. He asked Pichai if he was aware that some employees spoke in a chat group about the “resist” movement, which combats President Trump’s agenda. Pichai said he was unaware. Pichai was asked if it was a surprised to hear that there is are employees interested in the “resist” movement? We have 90,000 employees and we allow freedom of expression, Pichai responded.
Gaetz wanted to know why Google hadn’t investigated the political bias of its employees. Gaetz’s obvious push here: Some Google employees are clearly anti-Trump, and that impacts Google’s products. “I would strongly suggest that one of the crisis response tools that you use is an investigation into the discourse of your employees on resisting the Trump presidency, resisting the Trump agenda, and then smothering some of conservative outlets that seek to amplify that content,” he said.
12:33 ET: Rep. Ted Lieu is one of several Democrats today to call the accusations of Google’s alleged anti-conservative bias a “waste of time.” Referencing some of his Republican colleagues who complained of seeing negative content when searching their names, or the names of other conservative leaders, Lieu said that if leaders want to see more positive search results, they should “do positive things,” and called on politicians not to blame social media companies, but “blame yourself” for bad press.
12:43 pm ET: Rep. Jamie Raskin has brought up an important question about conspiracy theories — and made everyone’s skin crawl in the process. Raskin asked why videos that promote a conspiracy theory known as “Frazzledrip,” which suggests Hillary Clinton kills young women and drinks their blood, are still allowed on YouTube. (Warning: Beware when searching for this term on Google.) Pichai doesn’t have a great response, though it’s clear he’s not sure what specific videos Raskin is discussing. “We would need to validate whether that specific video violates our policies,” Pichai said.
The big picture, though, is that it’s clear that Google is still dealing with the same issues that Facebook and Twitter deal with, which is the task of tracking down ridiculous (and potentially harmful) conspiracy theories without infringing on free speech. Pichai said “it’s our responsibility” to police and protect Google’s services. Hmm. I think we heard that before from one of Google’s competitors.