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Google CEO Sundar Pichai appeared before Congress on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. He spent most of his testimony countering allegations from Republicans stating that he is showing anti-conservative bias through the company’s search results.
Additionally, Pichai faced criticism for how much data Google collects on users and on the company’s work on a censored search tool for China.
Repeatedly, Republican lawmakers pressed him on allegations of political bias in search results on Google and YouTube. There were a few instances where they suggested that some Google engineers may be manipulating the results to sideline views that are conservative of supportive of Donald Trump.
Google has denied these allegations as did Pichai through four hours in front of the House Judiciary Committee.
“We use a robust methodology to reflect what is being said about any given topic at any particular time. It is in our interest to make sure we reflect what’s happening out there in the best objective manner possible. I can commit to you and I can assure you, we do it without regards to political ideology. Our algorithms do it with no notion of political sentiment.”
According to NPR, “Google’s appearance on Capitol Hill comes at a time of high scrutiny for Silicon Valley.” Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Twitter, Facebook, and other companies are facing a downturn of public opinion as they struggle to find a balance between content that will engage users and reeling back the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Democrats have described the anti-conservative accusations as political theater without evidence. The intense political focus on tech companies has opened the door to serious regulation conversations. There was a Justice Department meeting in September that was meant to address the political bias of tech companies, in an effort to rein in the industry.
On Tuesday, Pichai was asked pointed questions about exactly how much data Google collects on users, especially concerning their location. Earlier this year, the AP reported “several Google apps and websites store user location even if users have turned off Location History.” The New York Times published a report this week that showed how detailed and lucrative location tracking can be.
Rep. Doug Collins focused on the scale of Google’s data gathering because the business model of the company relies on the sale of advertising using the knowledge collected about the people who use their platforms or devices. He questioned Pichai on specific data points.
Collins: Do you or do you not collect identifiers like name, age or address? Yes or no.
Pichai: If you’re creating an account, yes – and using an account, yes.
Collins: Specific search histories when a person types something into a search bar.
Pichai: If you have search history turned on, yes.
Collins: Device identifiers like IP address or IMEI.
Pichai: Depending on the situation, we could be collecting it, yes.
Collins: GPS signals, Wi-Fi signals, Bluetooth beacons.
Pichai: Would depend on the specifics, but there may be situations, yes.
Collins: Contents of emails and Google documents.
Pichai: We store the data, but we don’t read of look at …
Collins: But you have access to them.
Pichai: As a company we have access to them, yes.
Lawmakers from both sides asked questions about project Dragonfly. The purpose of Dragonfly is to build search engine that is adjusted to China’s censorship demands and blocking specific websites and search terms determined by the Chinese government.
Pichai repeatedly answered, “Right now, there are no plans for us to launch a search product in China.” This response indicates that the plan could change in the future, though Pichai promised Congress Google would be transparent about any changes.
Pichai confirmed the project had been underway for awhile and at one point involved more than 100 people. “We explored what a search could look like if it were to be launched in a country like China.”
According to NPR, “This would have marked a return of a censored version of Google to China, which the company exited in 2010 after tensions with Beijing and a backlash in the United States.” Google has been facing criticism over the work on a censored search product since The Intercept revealed these plans in August.
Congress did not ask about Google’s most recent decision to not renew Project Maven with the Pentagon, following protests from employees concerned that Google’s artificial intelligence would be used for drone strikes.
Additionally, Google decided not to bid for a $10 billion cloud-computing contract with the Defense Department, saying that the tech giant did not qualify for part of the work and the company could not be assured the project would align with its corporate values.
Earlier in 2018, Alphabet decided not to send an executive to a large hearing with other tech companies about disinformation. Enraged by the absence of Google’s presence, Congress had left an empty seat marked with the Google name.
By Jeanette Smith
NPR: Google CEO Says He Leads ‘Without Political Bias’ In Congressional Testimony
Image Courtesy of Firm Bee’s Pixabay Page – Creative Commons License