Key Takeaways From Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s Day in Congress

Sundar Pichai Hearing
J Scott Applewhite/AP/REX/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai made it through a 3.5-hour hearing before the House Judiciary Committee free of committing the company to new business practices or behavior.

He didn’t even promise not to pursue a censored search engine in China, even as human rights groups have called on the company to abandon the project. And one of the more pressing issues, Google’s market dominance, was barely brought up by the panel of lawmakers.

Instead, the hearing focused heavily on Republican claims of political bias in Google’s search results, as well as the way that the company collects data on its users. While many of the questions from lawmakers specifically went to Google’s algorithms and technical features, Pichai at one point had to remind some representatives about basic facts.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) lamented that before the election, his 7-year-old granddaughter was playing a game on her phone and “up pops a picture of her grandfather” with coarse language around it. “How does that show up on a 7-year-old’s iPhone who is playing a kid’s game?” he asked.

“Congressman, iPhone is made by a different company,” Pichai said.

Google received a lot of flak in September when it declined to send a top representative to a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that also featured Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Given the heat that tech platforms are facing in Washington, it was almost inevitable that Google would have to eventually send its CEO to a committee hearing.

Pichai never lost his cool and calmly answered questions, and at times avoided answers by promising to get back to the lawmaker or the committee.

Here are some key moments:

Political bias: Starting with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Republicans ensured that the hearing would be heavy in questions of how Google ranks its search results, whether liberal employees can game the algorithm, and even if corporate support of get-out-the-vote efforts colored business practices.

Pichai, fully aware that this would be a significant topic of discussion, said in his opening statement that he leads the company “without political bias and work(s) to ensure that our products continue to operate that way.” He also denied that it was possible for an individual employee or group of employees to game the search results, even as Republicans like Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) expressed skepticism.

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) complained that, in the midst of debate over the Republican healthcare and tax bills, he couldn’t find any positive stories about the policies until he got several pages through Google search results.

“I understand the frustration at seeing negative news,” Pichai said, while insisting that “our algorithms have no notion of political sentiment.”

Some Democrats also had questions of their own. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) noted that in the past weekend, “I was on MSNBC four times.” When he searched for his appearances on Google, “The first thing that comes up is the Daily Caller.”

“It looks like you are overly using conservative news organizations,” he said.

It was unclear whether Cohen was genuine or just mocking GOP efforts to make an issue of political bias, as other Democrats dismissed the claims of partisan manipulation. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the incoming chairman of the committee, called the claims a “fantasy” and “fact-free propaganda.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), whose district includes parts of Silicon Valley, asked Pichai why, if she searches the word “idiot,” a picture of President Trump appears. It was a way for her to get Pichai to explain how Google search works.

“We don’t manually intervene on any particular search result,” he said after a lengthy explanation.

Privacy: Pichai said Google would support a uniform federal privacy law, but the big question is what that would look like.

“Protecting the privacy and security of our users has long been an essential part of our mission,” Pichai said in his opening remarks.

Plenty of questions were asked about how consumers could opt in or opt out of an array of Google’s data collection practices, but some lawmakers faced immediate social media pushback in how they framed their questions.

Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) tried for some theatrics, holding up his phone and pointedly asking Pichai whether Google could track his location as he moved across the room. “Does Google know that I was sitting here and that I moved over there?” he asked.

Pichai answered, “Not by default,” but that was not enough for Poe.

“It’s not a trick question,” he said to Pichai. “You make $100 million a year, you ought to be able to answer that question.”

Pichai’s point, though, was that there was no way of knowing that without seeing what his settings are.

He said that “we always think that there is more to do” when it comes to its privacy practices and making it easier for users to control their personal information. But it was clear that members of Congress still had questions of what type of data the company collects and how it is used by third parties.

China: Google has taken heat from lawmakers, human rights groups, and even some of its own employees over reports of Project Dragonfly, or its development of a censored search engine for China.

Pichai, though, did not directly answer some of the questions over where the company was in its development, other than to say that it was an “internal effort” and “there are no plans to launch a search service in China necessarily.”

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) asked, “Are there any current discussions with members of the Chinese government about this?”

“This effort is currently an internal effort. I’m happy to consult, be transparent as we take steps toward launching a product in China,” Pichai responded. He added that more than 100 employees were working on the project at one point.

Cicilline also asked him whether he would rule out “launching a tool for surveillance and censorship in China” while he is CEO.

Pichai said he would be “very thoughtful” and “we will engage widely as we make progress.” He also said “getting access to information is an important human right.” But he declined to explicitly rule out a censored Chinese product.

Antitrust: Cicilline is the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, and also brought up one of the few questions about Google’s market dominance. He said he was “deeply concerned” about reports of Google’s discriminatory conduct in the market for internet search by favoring its own products and services over rivals.

“I disagree with that characterization,” Pichai said. “We provide users with the best experiences they are looking for, the most relevant information.” He said they are appealing the European Commission’s ruling.

Cicilline said he is planning to work with the Federal Trade Commission to develop legislative proposals to prevent dominant firms from using their market power to discriminate against competitors.

“We are happy to engage constructively on legislation in any of these areas,” Pichai responded.

Although antitrust issues got little attention during the hearing, they were present in its backdrop. Seated behind Pichai was a man in a top hat, monocle, and fake handlebar mustache, resembling the character from the Monopoly board game.

Piracy: Scant attention was paid to piracy, an issue that has long been a source of friction between Hollywood and other content creators and Google executives. The former says Google hasn’t done enough to combat copyright infringement, particularly when it comes to ranking search results. Google says it has, and that current law strikes the appropriate balance.

Nadler brought up the problem of pirated material “at the expense of legitimate content,” but otherwise that issue was left to outside trade groups to highlight. Among them was CreativeFuture, which sent out tweets throughout the hearing.

“There’s a lot of debate about partisan ‘search bias,’ but there is no debate about piracy ‘search bias’ Google drives users to pirate websites again and again. #PlatformAccountability,” the group tweeted.

It also couldn’t resist commenting on Monopoly Man.