On December 11th, Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee for 3.5 hours, answering questions regarding potential policy bias, alleged plans for a censored search app in China and privacy practices.
This was the first time he appears before the Congress, since Google declined to send him or Alphabet’s CEO Larry Page to a hearing on foreign election meddling earlier in 2018.
One of the most interesting questions came from Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), attempting to refute the idea that Google is manipulating search results:
“Right now, if you google the word ‘idiot’ under images, a picture of Donald Trump comes up. I just did that,” she said. “How would that happen?”
Pichai offered a long explanation on how Google search works in general:
“Any time you type in a keyword, as Google we have gone out and crawled and stored copies of billions of [websites’] pages in our index. And we take the keyword and match it against their pages and rank them based on over 200 signals — things like relevance, freshness, popularity, how other people are using it. And based on that, at any given time, we try to rank and find the best search results for that query. And then we evaluate them with external raters, and they evaluate it to objective guidelines. And that’s how we make sure the process is working. This is working at scale, and we don’t manually intervene on any particular search result.”
The question followed a long tirade by Rep. Lamar Smith who claimed that Google suppressing conservative search results, presenting “irrefutable” evidence. This evidence included a research by Google critic Robert Epstein, as well as repeated quotes from a blog post on the conservative site PJ Media, which the writer specifically describes as “not scientific.”
Breitbart provided a transcript of the interaction between Smith and Pichai:
“Google has revolutionized the world, though not entirely in the way I expected. Americans deserve the facts objectively reported,” declared Rep. Smith. “The muting of conservative voices by platforms has intensified, especially during the presidency of Donald Trump. More than 90 percent of all Internet searches take place on Google or its subsidiary YouTube, and they are curating what we see.”
“Google has long faced criticism for manipulating search results to censor conservatives. Conservative individuals and organizations have had their pro-Trump content tagged as ‘hate speech,’ or had their content reduced in search results. An enforcement of immigration laws has been tagged as hate speech as well. Such actions pose a grave threat to our democratic forum of government,” he continued. “PJ Media found that 96 percent of search results for Trump were from liberal media outlets. In fact, not a single right-leaning site appeared on the first page of search results. This doesn’t happen by accident, but is baked into the algorithms. Those who write the algorithms get the results they must want, and apparently, management allows it. Dr. Robert Epstein, a Harvard-trained psychologist authored a study recently that showed Google’s bias likely swung 2.6 million votes to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Google could well elect the next president with dire implications for our democracy. This should be a real concern to all but the most politically partisan. Those at the top set the tone. It will require a Herculean effort by the Chief Executive and senior management to change the political bias now programmed into the company’s culture.”
Smith then asked, “In your opening statement you mentioned your desire to provide information that was without political bias. Clearly that’s not working. So, what are you going to do to improve that situation?”
Most notably, Pichai said that Google is aware of the studies, and found issues with methodology and samples sizes. Furthermore, the Google CEO said:
“It is not possible for an individual employee or groups of employees to manipulate our search results. We have a robust framework, including many steps in the process.”
Essentially, Pichai said that the censorship of conservative media is not the result of an conscious and aimed effort, rather it is just a result of the algorithm best answering user’s requirements.
He said that Google “provides users with the best experience and the most relevant information,” and denied that the company used discriminatory practices in its search results. When Cicilline pushed him on whether Google would support some kind of antitrust legislation, Pichai vaguely answered that Google would be “happy to engage constructively on legislation in any of these areas.”
Regarding Google’s privacy practices, Pichai said that he thinks Android users have a good understanding of the volume of data Google collects on them, when they agree to use the Android mobile operating system. He claimed that users are in control of the information Google collects on them.
“For Google services, you have a choice of what information is collected, and we make it transparent,” Pichai said in response to questioning from Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA).
Google’s defense on the data collection front is similar to Facebook’s — that is, Pichai responded that Google provides tools that put users in control. The question is whether users actually use these tools.
“It’s really important for us that average users are able to understand it,” said Pichai, stating that users do understand the user agreement for Android OS.
“We actually…remind users to do a privacy checkup, and we make it very obvious every month. In fact, in the last 28 days, 160 million users went to their My Account settings, where they can clearly see what information we have — we actually show it back to them. We give clear toggles, by category, where they can decide whether that information is collected, stored, or — more importantly — if they decide to stop using it, we work hard to make it possible for users to take their data with them.”
160 million may sound like a lot, however most Google products have more than a billion users.
Furthermore, earlier in 2018, AP News reported that Google was continuing to track users’ location even when they have explicitly opted out of the Location History setting.
Later on, he was asked if Google could improve its user dashboard and tools to better teach people how to protect their privacy, including turning data collection and location tracking off.
“There’s complexity,” Pichai said, but admitted this is “something I do think we can do better.”
“We want to simplify it, and make it easier for average users to navigate these settings,” he continued. “It’s something we are working on.”
“If you store data, from the time you turn it on, we store it for you” Sundar Pichai said. That is the complete opposite of what is happening, Google constantly “stores data” for its users, and even opting out of that “service” doesn’t stop it from doing so.
A main point of the interview was Google’s alleged plan to launch a censored search app in China, dubbed “Project Dragonfly.” Sundar Pichai was especially evasive when answering questions regarding the matter.
"We need minimal data to do advertising" – Pichai says on the subject of "data minimization." Remember this as Google negotiates the terms of federal privacy legislation.
— issie lapowsky (@issielapowsky) December 11, 2018
Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) also asked questions regarding the China project:
“I have a concern concerning China. In 2010, Google left the Chinese marketplace due to concerns over hacking attacks, censorship, and how the Chinese government was possibly gaining access to data. I’m interested in what has changed since 2010, and how working with the Chinese government to censor results are part of Google’s core values.”
Pichai’s response was the following:
“Right now there are no plans for us to launch a search product in China. It’s part of our core mission and principles to try hard to provide users with information. We always have evidence, based on every country we have operated in, us reaching out and giving users more information has a very positive impact, and we feel that calling. But right now there are no plans to launch in China. The extent that we ever approach a position like that, I will be very transparent, including with policy-makers here, and engage and consult widely.”
Marino then provided a follow-up question:
“Am I then to understand you have no plans to enter into any agreements with China concerning Google, how it’s used, in China?” Pichai replied, “We currently do not have a Search product there… Right now there are no plans to launch a Search product in China.”
To which Pichai responded evasively:
“Anytime we look to operate in a country we would look at what the conditions are to operate. There are times in the past where we debated the conditions to operate, and we explore a wide range of posibilities. Currently it is an effort only internally for us. We are not doing this in China.”
Despite Pichai’s claims that Google has no plans to expand into China, reports and comments from employees indicate otherwise.
The Intercept reported that project Dragonfly would blacklist terms and searches about human rights, democracy and protest, and “comply with the country’s strict censorship laws, restricting access to content that Xi Jinping’s Communist Party regime deems unfavorable.”
736 Google employees have currently signed an open letter calling on the company to end development of Project Dragonfly.
“Many of us accepted employment at Google with the company’s values in mind, including its previous position on Chinese censorship and surveillance, and an understanding that Google was a company willing to place its values above its profits,” the letter proclaimed. “After a year of disappointments including Project Maven, Dragonfly, and Google’s support for abusers, we no longer believe this is the case. This is why we’re taking a stand.”
Overall, Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s testimony before the Congress was filled with evasive, dubious answers or straight out lies, which go directly against what users have experienced.