At 10 a.m. Tuesday, it will be Google’s turn to get a Congressional grilling. After notoriously skipping out on Senate panel hearing on election interference with top execs from Facebook and Twitter in September, Google is sending CEO Sundar Pichai to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, which is “examining Google and its data collection, use and filtering practices.”
Pichai’s written testimony, which has already been released, begins by highlighting Google’s contributions to the U.S. economy, re-iterating its proposed framework for federal privacy legislation, and defending the integrity of its products. But the real meat of the hearing will come from questions asked of Pichai by members of the Committee.
What’s Pichai likely to get asked? Judging from the past year of hearings, anything the panel’s constituents have been griping about — including whether the search giant skews results to reduce conservative viewpoints, a charge that President Trump has repeated and Google has repeatedly denied. “I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way,” Pichai wrote in his testimony.
“The technology behind online services like social media and Internet search engines can also be used to suppress particular viewpoints and manipulate public opinion,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) said in a statement. “Americans put their trust in big tech companies to honor freedom of speech and champion open dialogue, and it is Congress’ responsibility to the American people to make sure these tech giants are transparent and accountable in their practices.”
It’s less likely that concerns over bias will lead to legislation, given that Democrats will be taking over the House of Representatives when the new Congress is sworn in in January. At that time, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) will be the new Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and questions from him and other Democrats will likely be a better sign of what, if any, new legislation around tech giants will be considered.
According to a report from Politico in November, Nadler seemed more concerned about Google’s market concentration than its filtering bias.
We’ll be liveblogging Pichai’s testimony here. Stay tuned for more and follow along as the hearing progresses.
12:30 pm – Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) asks about a Google project, Perspective, which uses machine learning to filter out unacceptable content. Johnson asks how Google can guarantee that tool won’t filter out conservative content. Pichai responded by stating that Perspective is intended to be a tool for other publishers, and it’s up to them to make decisions about filtering.
12:28 pm – Stock watch: GOOG is now at 1057.16, down from the start of the hearing but 4.52 higher than yesterday’s close.
12:26 pm – Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) asks about Google’s local searches about businesses, and whether those searches can take advantage of third-party information and not just Google reviews. Pichai says that Google utilizes a large number of sources, including its own data.
12:21 pm – Rep. Matthew Gaetz (R-FL) asks if Google has launched an investigation into political bias among its employees. Pichai outlines the steps necessary to change Google’s search algorithms, which involve committees and user testing. Gaetz goes on to complain that there’s a Google discussion group of people who oppose President Trump’s political agenda. Pichai denies any knowledge of such a group, but stated that Google’s systems are designed with protections to prevent against bad faith actors.
12:11 pm – Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) changes the topic to Google’s impact on the competitive landscape, and asks whether Google will end what he calls discriminatory practices against competitors such as those found by the EU. Pichai said Google is appealing that EU finding and that it doesn’t discriminate against competitors.
12:08 pm– Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) asked a series of questions about what kinds of data that Google collects – but also what Google doesn’t collect. Pichai said that the company aims to minimize the amount of data it collects to what’s necessary. Collins followed up by asking how many people know they can control what data Google collects. Pichai says that Google provides reminders about checking up on data collection settings.
11:59 am– Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) asks what Google is doing to protect the integrity of its search results from manipulative bots and “troll farms.” Pichai says that Google deals with bots on a number of issues like Spam, and that Google works with law enforcement and its own data to look for spikes in activity that make it clear they’re not caused by humans.
11:55am – Marino asks what Google does to protect the security of its users from hackers. This is an issue that Pichai says, “keeps me up at night” and that Google works with law enforcement to have a comprehensive approach.
11:54am – Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) returns the tenor of the conversation to Google in China. He asks if anything has changed since Google chose to leave China in 2010. Pichai re-iterated that Google has no plans to launch a search product in China, and says that if that changes, he’d be transparent with U.S. policymakers about it.
11:46 am – Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) asks whether Google should be accountable for the content on its platforms. Pichai says that it has a responsibility to provide accurate information.
11:43am – Poe asks what Google considers objectionable in terms of extreme political views. Pichai responds with its hate speech policy, which Google defines as inciting hate or violence.
11:41 am – Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) asks whether Google could tell his location in the room based on the data in his iPhone. Pichai says that it wouldn’t be by default and that it would depend on its application settings. Poe brings up the EU’s GDPR, which he has introduced legislation to introduce similar protections from into U.S. law.
11:37 am – Johnson moved on to more concerns about the protection of Google’s user data and how users can trust the company with their information. Pichai says that software inevitably has bugs, but that Google invests a lot of resources into finding exploitable bugs to keep information and data secure. He also asks what Google does with geolocation data. Pichai says that Google never sells user data, and gives its users control over how their data is used to deliver ads to them.
11:34 am – Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) followed up on Jordan’s line of questioning about whether Google had paid for such efforts. Pichai categorically denied that it provides any partisan election features.
11:32 am– Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) discusses an email from a Google employee about pushing out the Latino vote “in key states.” Pichai denied that Google had any involvement in partisan election efforts, and that Google had no involvement in partisan election efforts or pay for voters. He said that an internal investigation found no evidence for partisan organizations, and that Google provides information to voters about registration and polling locations. He said that Google did not provide any support to get out the vote for any segment of the population.
11:25 am – Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) complains about the like of phone support for Google customer help. He moves on to ask about the use of bots on YouTube by governments like Russia to downvote content from human rights activists. Pichai says that Google is committed to free expression, and that the company works to counter bots that behave in this manner. Steve Cohen then says he did a search for himself and found that the top results were primarily conservative news sites like The Daily Caller and Bretibart even though he appeared on MSNBC that weekend. Pichai again re-iterated that Google’s search results work in a politically neutral manner.
11:20am – Stock watch: GOOG is now at 1054.16, down from the start of the hearing but up on yesterday’s close.
11:19 am – Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) continues the line of questioning about political bias in search results, pointing to perceived results that bias exists among the search engine results. Pichai again replies that its algorithms don’t include such bias. Issa moves on to ask whether Google’s dashboards on Android phones can be improved to be more transparent about privacy. “It’s an area where we want to do better,” agrees Pichai.
11:14 am – Jackson-Lee’s next question is about how YouTube is promoting diversity among its employees. Pichai says the company does reach out to minority communities and wants to ensure they’re represented. He highlights that Google was one of the first to publish its internal diversity numbers but that it’s an issue they’re committed to doing more.
11:12am – Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) asks whether Google takes down hate speech directs violence, to which Pichai responds that it does. She then asks whether Google will protect privacy in email, to which Pichai says it does. She also asked whether Google is doing anything to halt to sale of unsafe or ineffective medicines. Pichai says that it’s working with law enforcement on such efforts. She then asked about Google’s plans in China, to which Pichai responded that Google has no plans to launch search in China.
11:07am – Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) has the floor, and begins with a line of argument of his own first-hand experience in having to go to a 3rd or 4th page of search results to find good things about Republican-proposed health care policy or the recently passed Republican tax cut bill. Pichai says that he understands the frustration in seeing negative news – which he sees when he searches for himself and Google. He states that the algorithm reflects what is being said objectively, which he says is without regard to political ideology. Chabot disagrees: “You’ve got somebody out there” changing search results. Pichai said that he’s happy to follow up and explain more about how the process works. Chabot concludes just by thanking Google for its work in supporting small business.
11:01am – Lofgren asks a little about how search works, highlighting that it’s not “just a little man behind a curtain” making decisions about search results. Pichai notes that the search engine is mostly driven algorithmically and done at scale.
10:59 am – Lofgren builds on Goodlatte’s question and asks if she has an Android phone with no apps on it, what data is collected? Pichai says that by default, location is turned on, and that IP addresses also provide some location info.
10:58 am – Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) whose district includes San Jose, asks a “parochial” question about how an expansion of Google’s headquarters will impact the local housing market. Pichai says that Google is working to minimize such an impact.
10:55 am – Smith asks Pichai whether Google would allow third-parties to investigate its search results for political bias. Pichai says that such third-party studies have happened, and that Google publishes its search guidelines. Smith asks whether any employee has been sanctioned for “manipulating search results” to which Pichai says it would be impossible for one employee to make such changes.
10:54 am – Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) opens his questions claiming that Google is using its platform to censor conservative views. He cites a claim from PJ Media that 96% of searches for Trump come from “left-leaning sources” as a sign that Google is not operating objectively. (Note: Politifact found that this PJ Media claim is false.) Pichai replied to this by claiming first of all that several citations that Smith cited were inaccurate and had problems with methodology. But he said he’d be happy to provide Google’s findings to Smith’s office. Pichai says that the top news sources on media reflect a diversity of sources.
10:50 am – Nadler’s last question is about the spread of hate speech, particularly on YouTube. Pichai says that YouTube’s content policies are clear and that they take actions accordingly when they’re violated.
10:49 am – Nadler’s next line of questioning is about the extent of how Russian agents have used Google to spread misinformation. Pichai said that Google’s investigation uncovered to major ad accounts that were serving this, and that the company took steps to prevent Russia and other foreign powers are doing the same. It looks more into how ads are bought and where purchases are located, he said, and will work with law enforcement on identifying actions of those powers.
10:47 am – Jerry Nadler (D-CA) opens by asking what legal obligation Google has to reveal data exposures like the bug in Google Plus. Pichai responded by saying it was generally reported within 72 hours.
10:44am – Stock watch: The hearing doesn’t seem to be hurting Google’s stock right now, which is sitting at 1062.18
10:43 am – Goodlatte shifts gears to the question of filtering objectionable content. He notes that objectionable content can also be the most engaging, setting up a conflict of interest of revenue. Goodlatte asked Pichai whether Google wants to filter out objectionable material for a “healthier civic dialogue.” Pichai replied by stating that filtering out objectionable content is healthier for Google and YouTube in the long run.
10:41 am – Goodlatte asks Pichai whether its true that Android phones send location and other data to Google “every few minutes.” Pichai notes that what data is collected depends on what apps users choose to use. For example, he says, someone with a Fitbit app wants that data to be transferred. Pichai says that yes, the phones send data to Google but insists that it’s transparent. Goodlatte was also interested in what Google’s users know about what data is collected. Pichai responds to this by highlighting the company’s Privacy Checkup, which prompts users about their privacy settings.
10:37 am – Sundar Pichai has been sworn in and gave a summary version of the written testimony that was released earlier. In it, he highlighted Google’s America’s roots and notes that Google has a presence in a number of states and noted that it has over 24,000 employees and brings over $150 billion into the U.S. economy. “Protecting the privacy of our users” is a priority for the company, he says. He also highlights his claim that there’s no political bias in Google’s products, and that the company’s employees feature a wide diversity of opinion.
10:31 am – Ranking member Jerry Nadler (D-NY) gave his opening statement. Like Goodlatte, he notes the public reliance on Google and notes his questions about the collection of private data. However, he goes on to dismiss the idea that Google has an “anti-conservative bias” and claims that such “fact-free propaganda” engenders mistrust of tech companies. He adds, thought, that even if Google did discriminate against conservative viewpoints, that’s its right as a private company, just like Fox News, and “shouldn’t be questioned by government.” But he does want to know how Google plans to stop “hostile foreign powers” from using Google’s platform to spread disinformation. He’s also interested in knowing how Google plans to deal with the spread of communication from groups that lead to rise in hate crimes and other bigoted action. He concludes with concerns about Google’s market dominance and whether other companies can compete, about the spread of pirated material on Google, how Google protects private data in light of revealed bugs in Google Plus that could lead to misuse of data, and whether Google plans to build a censored search engine in China.
10:25 am – Goodlatte continued in his statement to know that studies have shown that search engine rankings can shift voting patterns of undecided voters, and raises questions about how the search engine might influence democracy. Additionally, in talking about privacy, he says that most people with Android phones likely have no idea how many sensors are collecting data at a given time. He goes on to note that Google is basically unavoidable, since its ads are served all over the internet and its search tool is often the default even on non-Google-owned sites and products. He closes his statement by citing Google as an example of “the American dream” founded by two people in a garage.
10:19 am – Judiciary chair Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) give his opening statement, highlighting the amount of data that Google collects from its search engine, Gmail, Android operating system and others. He notes that yes, consumers consent to this via Terms of Service agreements, but that they likely “have no idea” how much data is being collected. He also says that Google is often the “first and last stop” for people getting information on the internet, and says that the Committee wants to investigate how Google makes decisions about filtering content in search results. “Americans deserve to know what information they’re not getting” when they use Google search, he says.
10:12 am – The hearing started a few minutes late with an introduction from Chairman Goodlatte and an opening statement from Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who notes Google’s dominance of the search engine market and claims that the American public increasingly distrusts technology companies. He goes further to set the stage for the hearing, with questions about whether political bias impacts Google search results, whether it promotes free-market ideals, and speaking concerns about reports that Google is preparing a censored search engine for China. He pointedly asks: “Are America’s technology companies serving as instruments of freedom, or instruments of control?”
9:55am – As we get ready for the hearings to begin, we’ll be keeping an eye on Google’s stock price, which right now is at 1,064.60 – up a little over a percent from yesterday’s close. Stock prices have a tendency to be volatile during Congressional testimony. When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, his company’s stock dropped over 6%.
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