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On Tuesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai endured nearly three and a half hours of questioning in front of the House Judiciary Committee about the company he leads, including its market position, complaints of political bias, and concerns over it launching a censored search product in China.
Although other tech CEOs have struggled under the pressure of Congressional questioning, Pichai remained relatively cool throughout and stuck to more repetitive answers to lines of questioning that came from both parties.
Three big issues that came up during the hearing were allegations that Google search results are biased against conservative viewpoints and news sources; concerns over how Android devices collect data; and pointed questions about whether Google was planning a censored search product for China. Other issues that arose included concerns over Google’s market dominance, forced arbitration of employee claims, and how content is filtered on Google’s platform.
“The technology behind online services like social media and Internet search engines can also be used to suppress particular viewpoints and manipulate public opinion,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) said in a statement before the hearing. “Americans put their trust in big tech companies to honor freedom of speech and champion open dialogue, and it is Congress’ responsibility to the American people to make sure these tech giants are transparent and accountable in their practices.”
Allegations that Google’s search results are biased against conservatives was the theme of a number of questioners - indeed, Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX) spent his five minutes making allegations without actually asking any questions of Pichai at all. Democrats mostly dismissed these allegations, though Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) complained that when he searched his own name previously, the results tended to be from conservative news organizations.
In response to these allegations, Pichai mostly stuck to variations on the line that was included in his written testimony, “I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way.” He re-iterated that Google’s search results can’t be manipulated by one person and that it’s designed to be robust and responsive to user feedback.
A number of members of both parties had a lot of pointed questions about the way that Android devices and Google products collect data. For example, Chairman Goodlatte’s opening statement noted that Android products collect a lot of data and that while many consumers may consent to this data collection via terms of service, most of them “have no idea” what’s being collected.
On numerous occasions during this line of questioning, Pichai stated that Google was working to make it easier for consumers to understand its privacy policies. That includes simplifying its privacy dashboards and sending reminders to users to check up on their privacy settings. Still, he admitted that the company still as a lot of work to do in that area.
The other line of questioning that both parties agreed on involved expressing concern over Google’s Project Dragonfly, which Pichai described to the Committee as an exploratory project to see how a search product might operate in China. Pichai admitted that over 100 employees had worked on the project over the course of a number of months, but denied that Google had any plans to expand a search product to China.
That said, the prospect of a potential Chinese expansion did seem to be on his mind. On several occasions, Pichai noted part of Google’s mission is to “explore possibilities to give users access to information,” but he tried to ensure lawmakers that the company would engage with U.S. policymakers before taking any steps to move into China.
A number of references were made also during the hearing to Google’s market dominance in search, including wielding of a number claiming that 90% of searchers are made on Google’s platform. These stats from eMarketerhighlight how Google compares to its search rivals.
Pichai seemed to bristle at this particular claim, stating that the stat doesn’t adequately reflect how people search. He noted, for example, that studies of searches for products to shop for don’t include Amazon, which he said was many consumers’ go-to first stop for shopping.