Google CEO hearing: Congress’s focus on political bias overshadows bigger issues

There are plenty of reasons to be worried about Google — its plans to launch a search engine in China, its use of mobile location data, allegations of anticompetitive practices it undertakes.

At a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, lawmakers had an opportunity to ask Google CEO Sundar Pichai about those issues and more. Some of them did, but others were so focused on pushing their own political agendas or confused by how Google works that the substantive matters were often overshadowed.

Pichai, 46, delivered his first testimony on Capitol Hill this week. He follows a number of big-name tech executives, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, in making appearances before Congress this year. The hearing, according to Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-MA), was meant to examine Google’s “data collection, use, and filtering practices” — that latter part referring to allegations of political biases — and saw lawmakers question Pichai for more than three hours.

They covered a wide range of topics, but over and over again, lawmakers came back to bizarre allegations and conspiracies or clearly demonstrated a misunderstanding of how Google works and what it does.

Republicans and Democrats think there are instances where Google is biased against them

Many Republican senators accused Google of manipulating its search algorithm to favor one political party over another — namely, Democrats — even though Pichai assured lawmakers again and again that its algorithm has no such bias.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) cited a claim from conservative website PJ Media that 96 percent of Google’s search results for news on Trump are from “liberal media outlets.” (PJ Media names the New York Times, NPR, and the Washington Post as some of the most liberal outlets.) He also brought up an estimate from psychologist Robert Epstein, who claimed ahead of the 2016 election that Google’s search bias would deliver Hillary Clinton 2.6 million more votes.

Pichai countered that Google has found issues with the website’s methodology and sample size. “We are transparent as to how we evaluate search. We publish guidelines,” he said.

Smith pressed for one follow-up question after his time expired. “You’ve never sanctioned any employee for … manipulating search results whatsoever, is that the case?”

“Very quickly, it’s not possible for an individual employee or groups of employees to manipulate our search results,” Pichai responded. “We have a robust framework, including many steps in the process”

“I disagree,” Smith responded. “I think humans can manipulate the process.”

Smith was one of several Republicans to make allegations of anti-conservative bias at Google and suggest the potential political leanings of its workers could seep into its algorithm, a highly complex system the company relies on for its search results.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) asked about a “resist” chat group among Google employees and asked about an internal discussion in which some employees allegedly discussed “holding their nose” over having to review the website Breitbart for hate speech. He asked why Google hadn’t launched an investigation of its employees.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) pressed Pichai on an email from Google’s multicultural marketing chief sent after the 2016 election discussing Google’s work to increase Latino turnout and referencing its partnership with Voto Latino, a group aiming to help get Latino voters to the polls. Google has denied that this shows bias and was an effort for them to be a good corporate citizen. “We’ve looked into it, we didn’t find anything,” Pichai said.

Both Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and Steve King (R-IA) focused much of their questioning on the political bias of Google employees, with Gohmert bringing up a video of Google employees discussing the 2016 election with employees and some expressing dismay with the results.

He also complained that his Wikipedia page was being edited by “liberal editors.” Google results do show Wikipedia results, but Google does not control what Wikipedia pages say. And people of any political persuasion can edit Wikipedia.

King asked Pichai how many employees are involved in working on Google’s search algorithm — Pichai said it’s more than 1,000 people — and asked whether Google looked at their social media to monitor their activity.

King also mentioned an alert his 7-year-old granddaughter apparently received on her iPhone about him that said some not-so-flattering things. Pichai pointed out that Google does not make the iPhone; Apple does. King said maybe it was an Android.

It wasn’t just Republicans who expressed some confusion over how Google’s algorithm works and worries about bias.

Rep. Ira Cohen (D-TN) wondered why search results for his MSNBC appearances often yielded content from conservative sites such as Breitbart and the Daily Caller, saying in that instance it “looks like you are overly using conservative news organizations on your news.” He asked whether Google had considered some kind of “online school” where users can log in to speak with a Google representative and ask questions, essentially a sort of help line.

Some Democrats also expressed annoyance at the premise of the hearing in the first place. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) said vast anti-conservative bias in Google’s technology was an “illegitimate issue” and that “no credible evidence” supports the “right-wing conspiracy theory.”

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) said Tuesday’s hearing was “ridiculous” and discussion of alleged anti-conservative bias was a “waste of time.” He also juxtaposed the search results that come up with reference to Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) in comparison with Rep. King, suggesting that search results are largely based on the actions of the subjects. “Don’t blame Google or Facebook or Twitter, consider blaming yourself,” he said.

This weird focus on bias and conspiracies undercuts a lot of very important issues surrounding Google

The focus on allegations of political bias among Google employees took away airtime that could have otherwise been used for some very important questions surrounding Google that need addressing. That’s not to say they didn’t come up at all, but perhaps they should have come up more.

Take, for example, Google’s activities in China and plans that it will launch a censored version of its website there, first reported by the Intercept in August. A number of Republican and Democratic lawmakers asked Pichai about the matter, but the hearing’s lack of focus didn’t allow them to drill down on it. Pichai said that Google has “no plans to launch in China,” but in an exchange with Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), he wouldn’t rule it out in the future.

Lawmakers also could have spent more time on Google’s data privacy practices, especially in the wake of a New York Times story published on Monday documenting how mobile marketing companies track user locations. According to the story, Google’s Android has about 1,200 apps with a location-sharing code, compared to 200 on Apple’s iOS.

Or they could have spent more time on anticompetitive practices at Google, and even concerns about bias — not political bias but instead competitive. Google was hit with a $5 billion fine from European regulators this year over allegations its Android operating system prioritizes Google’s products and services over those of competitors.

The Washington Post’s Tony Romm also noted that it was an hour and a half into Tuesday’s hearing before anyone brought up bugs in Google’s soon-to-be-shuttered Google+ that left the data of millions of accounts exposed.

Regulating technology is an enormously complicated issue, and it’s not clear anyone has the answer. On the one hand, companies such as Google and Facebook have amassed enormous amounts of power, and their practices with regard to data, competition, and censorship deserve scrutiny.

On the other hand, the US government’s historic reluctance to clamp down hard on tech has allowed such companies to flourish in the first place, as have the principles of the free and open internet. While Google doesn’t owe users First Amendment rights as a private company, the federal government does owe Google free speech rights.

It’s not clear what these congressional hearings — now with Facebook, Twitter, and Google — accomplish in terms of providing more answers on what to do about big tech. That’s especially evident when lawmakers can’t agree upon what’s wrong in the first place, and many seem intent on focusing on political agendas and headline-making sideshows instead of drilling down on the issues that matter.

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