After a year of avoiding the spotlight, Google CEO Sundar Pichai appeared before Congress on Tuesday, fielding questions for the first time from the bipartisan House Judiciary Committee on Google’s business practices and how they affect its billions of global users. The “transparency and accountability” hearing is one in a series of hearings this year in which Republicans have questioned tech CEOs on their theory that conservatives are being censored on social media platforms.
In September, when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg answered questions before Congress, Google didn’t send an executive to testify; that followed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s marathon two-day appearance before Congress in April.
These hearings have covered a range of concerns, from protecting users’ privacy to combating foreign election interference online, but they’ve all had a common theme: Lawmakers often seemed more concerned with political theater than using the opportunity to compel Google to answer questions of accountability, given its position as one of the most powerful American corporations in existence. Only a handful of lawmakers asked pointed, difficult questions of the tech giant’s CEO.
But in spite of his relative inexperience in appearing before Congress, Pichai largely sidestepped controversy, offering no concrete answers to the open questions of how Google makes its decisions around policy, privacy, artificial intelligence, surveillance, and its willingness to cooperate with China on building a censored search product. It’s still unclear what concrete changes, if any, will come out of Pichai’s testimony.
Here are the eight craziest moments and the most important questions that still need to be answered after Google’s congressional hearing.
“Right now, if you Google the word ‘idiot’ under images, a picture of Donald Trump comes up. I just did that. How would that happen?”
The whole point of the hearing was for Republicans to contend that Google products — particularly Google search — gives more favorable, flattering search results to Democrats and liberals. During the hearing, Democrat Rep. Zoe Lofgren asked Pichai: “Right now, if you Google the word ‘idiot’ under images, a picture of Donald Trump comes up. I just did that. How would that happen?”
Pichai responded that the result would have to do with keywords users type into search. “We have gone out and crawled and stored copies of billions of webpages pages in our index. We take the keyword and match it against webpages and rank them based on over 200 signals — things like relevance, freshness, popularity, how other people are using it.”
But Rep. Lofgren wasn’t done. She pressed, “So it’s not some little man sitting behind the curtain figuring out what we’re going to show the user?”
The elected representatives of Congress spent an awful lot of time arguing among themselves about how their names showed up in Google search results.
Toward the beginning of the hearing, Rep. Steve Cohen asked why his MSNBC appearances didn’t appear higher in Google search results. He was on MSNBC four times last weekend, Cohen said, and yet Googling news about him showed links to conservative sites like the Daily Caller and Breitbart. Google should have an online school people could go to, Cohen added, where one could “log in, talk to somebody, and say, ‘How do I do this?’”
Rep. Darrell Issa asserted the opposite. In a long, meandering manner, he seemed to ask Google to rank conservative news higher, since those types of organizations represented a minority among media.
A little later, Rep. Ted Lieu said he needed to educate his colleagues in Congress. “If you want positive search results, do positive things,” Lieu said. “If you do negative things, negative search results will come out on Google.” Lieu also asserted that because Google is a corporate entity, the government could not regulate the search engine under the protection of free speech rights. Still, under intense public scrutiny for allowing videos featuring Pizzagate-like conspiracy theories, offensive content, and child exploitation on its platform, the public has increasingly called for some kind of regulation for the tech giant.
Rep. Jim Jordan accused Google of getting Latino voters to the polls in key states like California and Texas, implying that the search company gave Democrats an advantage there.
Dumbfounded, Pichai said there was no evidence to substantiate Rep. Jordan’s allegations. “That’s not accurate,” he said. “It’s against our rights and principles.”
“I have an iPhone. And if I go to sit over there to sit with my Dem colleagues — making them nervous — would Google know that I moved over there? YES OR NO?”
Another bananas moment in the hearing room was when Rep. Ted Poe, practically shouting, asked whether Google would know if he moved over to the other side of the room and sat with his Democratic colleagues.
Pichai, ever the soft-spoken CEO, responded that it depended on the location settings on your phone. But Poe spoke over Pichai, saying that it was shocking that the head of Google could not answer his question.
Poe wasn’t the only one. Rep. Steve King later asked questions about the iPhone, prompting Pichai to say, “Congressman, iPhone is made by a different company.”
What is “frazzledrip”?
Rep. Jamie Raskin asked Sundar Pichai if he knew about “frazzledrip,” the bizarre, Pizzagate-style conspiracy videos on YouTube that claim Hillary Clinton drinks children’s blood.
Pichai responded: “We are constantly undertaking efforts to deal with misinformation.” He said Google is looking to do more.
Later, Rep. Louie Gohmert brought up his concerns that YouTube reportedly partners with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit specializing in civil rights and public interest litigation, was a so-called YouTube “trusted flagger.”
“The Southern Poverty Law Center has really stirred up more hate than any other group that I’ve known,” Gohmert said of the group, which has brought successful cases against white supremacist groups and promotes tolerance and education programs.
Members of Congress asked many questions about Dragonfly, Google’s secret, censored search engine for China.
But the most pointed exchange happened when Democratic Rep. David Cicilline asked Google’s CEO, “Are there current discussions or meetings inside of Google on Project Dragonfly? Are there any current talks with China?”
Pichai, throughout the hearing, had repeatedly said Google was not working on Project Dragonfly “right now.” He was even more evasive with Cicilline, stating the effort was “limited” and “currently an internal effort,” and that he would be “happy to consult, be transparent, as we take steps toward launching a product in China.” At one point, Pichai said, Google had “over 100 people” working on Project Dragonfly.
“Will you rule out launching a tool for surveillance and censorship in China while you’re CEO of Google?” Cicilline asked.
“Congressman, one of the things that’s important to us as a company ... we have a stated mission of providing users with information, and so we always think it’s in our duties to explore possibilities to give users access to information,” Pichai replied. “I have a commitment, but as I’ve said earlier on this, we’ll be very thoughtful and we’ll engage widely as we make progress.”
And finally, Rep. Pramila Jayapal brought up Google’s end to forced arbitration — a policy that prevents workers from airing their grievances in open court — and asked whether the company would consider broadening the policy to include other claims.
Google ended the practice in November, but still forces arbitration for other workplace grievances, such as discrimination, wage and hour disputes, and other claims.
Again not directly answering the question, Pichai responded that he had received a lot of feedback from Google employees on the issue and that the company was looking at what else it could do in this area.