Google CEO Sundar Pichai found himself caught in the middle of Republicans and Democrats as he testified Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee, the latest US tech executive to face tough questions about bias, censorship, privacy, and competition.
Lawmakers didn’t hesitate to press their partisan issues with Pichai, who has served as chief executive of Google and parent Alphabet Inc. for the past three years — and was criticized by senators for failing to appear at one of their hearings earlier in the year.
Here are the highlights of the interrogation so far.
Are you with us or against us?
The GOP has been focused on whether Google and its YouTube unit — along with Twitter and Facebook — suppress conservative views online, either intentionally or because of bias in their algorithms that determine what information users see.
During the hearing, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy tried to cast his party’s chief concern in more bipartisan, even patriotic language.
“Are America’s technology companies serving as instruments of freedom or instruments of control?” the California Republican asked. “Because a free world depends on a free Internet, we need to know that Google is on the side of the free world.”
Representative Bob Goodlatte, the Judiciary Committee chairman, praised the company’s success but raised the question of whether it had too much control over the economy and even politics.
“Google is a remarkable company that has accomplished a great deal,” said the Republican from Virginia (and Holyoke native). “But given their size and their economic power, and some would argue political power based upon how search works and how YouTube works, there are a lot of questions to address.”
Every step you take
Democrats have been more concerned about privacy issues than political bias, and they asked Pichai tough questions on the topic. But they also took the opportunity to take shots at their GOP counterparts.
“I must dispense with the complete illegitimate fantasy dreamed up by some conservatives that Google and other platforms have anti-conservative bias,” said the top Democrat on the committee, New York’s Jerrold Nadler.
Nadler instead warned that the Internet was making it too easy for people to spew hate speech. “The presence of hateful conduct and content in these platforms has been made all the more alarming by the recent rise in hate-motivated violence,” he said.
Waving the flag
Pichai, a 15-year veteran of Google, tried his best to reassure the committee that the company was not biased and was seeking to improve privacy controls for users and security for the country.
In his prepared opening statement, he said, “I am proud to say we do work, and we will continue to work, with the government to keep our country safe and secure. . . . 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.”
He sought to emphasize that Google was more than just thousands of liberal developers holed up in cubicles in Silicon Valley. “Over the years, our footprint has expanded far beyond California to states such as Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Alabama. Today in the US, we’re growing faster outside of the Bay Area than within it.”
And he struck the obligatory patriotic note: “I’ve had the opportunity to travel across the country and see all the places that are powering our digital economy — from Clarksville, to Pittsburgh, to San Diego, where we recently launched a partnership with the USO to help veterans and military families. . . . Over the past three [years], we have made direct contributions of $150 billion to the US economy, added more than 24,000 employees, and paid over $43 billion to US partners across Search, YouTube, and Android. These investments strengthen our communities and support thousands of American jobs.”
Don’t help China
Pichai dodged questions about reports that Google was planning to provide a search engine in China that would allow the Chinese government to censor results. Google pulled out of China several years ago over the censorship issue.
“Even as we expand into new markets, we never forget our American roots,” the executive said in his prepared remarks.
And, of course, there was the circus
It wouldn’t be a congressional hearing with protesters and gadflys. According to the Washington Post: “Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist banned from YouTube for violating its policies against abuse, took a seat five rows behind Pichai along with Roger Stone, an ally of Jones. Before testimony began, Jones held court outside the hearing room, shouting that Google had violated his rights to free speech.”