Google is now in the congressional spotlight as CEO Sundar Pichai testifies on Capitol Hill

Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer

WASHINGTON – Google chief executive Sundar Pichai asserted in his first-ever testimony to Congress that the tech giant operates “without political bias.” But the Tuesday hearing devolved into a partisan struggle reflecting two differing viewpoints on how Silicon Valley has overstepped its power.

Republicans insisted the company suppresses conservative voices, an allegation they have made repeatedly this year against Google as well as Facebook and Twitter. Democrats pledged tougher oversight of online hate and data privacy, issues that could move to the forefront when they take over control of the House next year.

As members of the two parties alternated asking questions in five-minute chunks, the soft-spoken Pichai repeatedly assured lawmakers that Google strives for political neutrality. He said the tech giant had worked to curb the spread of content that violates its rules, from white supremacist videos on YouTube to disinformation posted on its services by Russian agents.

Members of both parties pressed Pichai on the privacy implications of the company’s sweeping data-collection practices across a range of services, including Gmail, Google Search and the Android mobile operating system. A day after Google revealed a new mishap jeopardized the data of about 52 million users of its soon-to-be deactivated social networking service, Pichai told lawmakers, “We always think there is more to do.”

Both Democrats and Republicans also warned Google about building a search engine that would work with China’s government-controlled Internet, as the company has considered doing. In response, the Google leader said the company would brief Congress before proceeding.

The hearing at the House Judiciary Committee caps a year-long inquiry by the panel into allegations that Google and its tech peers stifle conservatives online. Democrats have objected to the inquiry from the beginning, stressing their Republican colleagues had been playing politics. But the two parties still appeared to share broad suspicions about Google’s algorithms — and the company’s business practices.

Pichai is the third tech CEO — following Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey — to submit to a grilling on Capitol Hill this year after years of avoiding the congressional spotlight. The questions about Google’s privacy practices, its next big tech bets and its ability to confront ills including hate speech only stand to intensify as lawmakers increasingly focus on how Silicon Valley operates.

GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, who helped orchestrate the hearing, opened with a rhetorical question: “Are America’s technology companies serving as instruments of freedom-or instruments of control?”

In response, frustrated Democrats led by Rep. Jerry Nadler called the premise of the hearing itself a “fantasy” and part of a “right-wing conspiracy.” Nadler said lawmakers should have focused on the ways the internet has become a “new tool for those seeking to stoke racial and ethnic hatred. 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.”

Republicans including Rep. Steve Chabot at one point charged that Google’s search algorithm is “in effect picking winners and losers,” and potentially even “affecting elections.”

Watching from the audience as they spoke were Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist banned from YouTube and other tech platforms for violating its policies against abuse, and Roger Stone, an ally of Jones and associate of President Trump who has emerged as a figure in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Before testimony began, Jones held court outside the hearing room, shouting that Google had violated his rights to free speech.

Caught in the middle, Pichai stressed Google’s neutrality.

“To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests,” Pichai said. “We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions, and we have no shortage of them among our own employees.”

Pichai’s mild-mannered responses — at times gently deflecting questions, offering more nuance than lawmakers sought, or promising to have his staff follow up later on tricky questions — did not always satisfy some Republicans.

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, held up his iPhone and demanded to know if Google would detect if he walked across the hearing room and sat among the Democratic lawmakers.

“Does Google track my movement?” asked Poe sharply.

As Pichai attempted to answer, adding that he needed to know more about the Apple device’s settings before answering, Poe interrupted, saying, “It’s not a trick question. You know you make $100 million a year. You ought to be able to answer that question.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, also took an aggressive tone with Pichai in citing a Washington Post story on Tuesday regarding the rampant spread of hateful, conspiratorial videos on YouTube.

Pichai said the company had made progress in policing some types of problematic content, but added, “We are looking to do more. This was a recent thing but I’m committed to following up on it, making sure we are evaluating these against our policies. But it’s an area where we acknowledge there’s more work to be done and will definitely continue doing that.”

Raskin didn’t relent, saying that while Republicans have alleged political bias, the hateful conspiracy videos have the potential to provoke violence as happened in 2016 when a man who had watched a Pizzagate conspiracy video on YouTube fired shots into a Washington, D.C., pizzeria.

“There is material that is a true public danger,” Raskin told Pichai. “I think the point at which it becomes a matter of serious public interest is when your communication vehicle is being used to promote propaganda that leads to violent events.”

Among Republicans, fears have grown that Google unevenly and unfairly applies its rules on what content to allow, and what to remove, especially on sites including YouTube. Other lawmakers — and Trump himself — have further alleged that Google rigs search results to display negative stories about them. Trump has never furnished evidence of such a claim.

Lawmakers at times asked basic questions about how Google’s search engine works, and the ways in which the company’s Android smartphone operating system collects and takes advantage of a device-owner’s location information.

Those lingering questions set the stage for further oversight as Democrats prepare to take over control of the House in 2019. Repeatedly, party lawmakers teased hearings on privacy, antitrust and online hate speech still to come.

“I look forward next year to working with you on some of the very serious questions we face,” said Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren. “It’s pretty obvious bias against conservative voices is not one of them.”

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