Sundar Pichai was met with accusations of bias during his congressional testimony, leaving other crucial Google issues at the sidelines, writes Ellen Tannam.
This past year has seen politicians increasingly scrutinise the practices of some of the world’s most powerful technology companies. From Facebook to Twitter, tech leaders have managed a barrage of questions from lawmakers around the world. As 2018 draws to a close, one of the major linchpins of the tech industry, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, made an appearance before US Congress yesterday (11 December).
Pichai faced questions from lawmakers on issues including data privacy, alleged plans for a search product in China and accusations of Liberal bias from Republicans.
In his opening remarks, the Google chief was keen to stress the non-partisan manner in which the company is run. “I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way. To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests.”
Liberal bias accusations
Pichai was asked on numerous occasions whether the search engine discriminates against political figures and citizens on the more Conservative end.
One Republican representative, Lamar Smith, cited a debunked study that claimed Google provided biased results when one searches for US president Donald Trump. Smith added that Google had a Liberal bias “programmed into the company’s culture”. Pichai said he would be happy to follow up with Smith to explain the methodology behind how Google surfaces results.
Another representative asked why images of the current US president appear in the results for the word ‘idiot’. Numerous other questions on the day echoed similar accusations of bias against technology companies from the Republican side, often without very much evidence to support such claims.
Another area Pichai faced scrutiny over was whether or not Google is developing a search engine to be deployed in the Chinese market. The project, reportedly dubbed Dragonfly, has been a concern for many but Pichai said that the company has no plans to launch a search product for the country.
He added that Google would be transparent if it was to ever launch such a service in China, describing Dragonfly as a limited internal effort at the company. Associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Dr Zeynep Tufekci, described the answer as “lawyered to death”, claiming that the plans for China were simply without a solid launch time and strategy.
Pichai added: “One of the things that’s important to us as a company, we have a stated mission of providing users with information. I have a commitment but, as I’ve said earlier on this, we’ll be very thoughtful and we’ll engage widely as we make progress.” Pichai did not rule out creating a Chinese search project in future.
Google data collection practices questioned
Data privacy was also on the minds of the politicians, who pressed Pichai about data collection, particularly on its Android OS. He stressed that although Google does collect a large amount of data, the keys to personal user information are not widely available and noted the tools users have to control what data is collected. On location information collection, he added that it is now part of the “fabric of how people use the internet”.
Online misinformation has been an area of difficulty for a wide array of tech firms and Google is no different there. One Democratic representative, Jerry Nadler, questioned Pichai about the wide availability of neo-Nazi content on Google-owned YouTube. He added: “We are constantly undertaking efforts to deal with misinformation. We have clearly stated policies and we have made lots of progress in many of the areas where over the past year. We are looking to do more.”
All in all, the confusion about the workings of technology displayed by many of the representatives meant the hearing was, overall, fairly toothless. Until politicians have more of a grasp of how these systems operate, the questioning sessions are unlikely to bear much fruit.