WASHINGTON – Google chief executive Sundar Pichai paid a rare visit to Washington on Friday to defend the search giant against allegations that it silences conservatives online, part of an effort to defuse political tensions between the company and Congress ahead of a hearing later this year.
At a gathering with a dozen Republicans, House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy of California stressed to Pichai that party lawmakers are concerned about “what’s going on with transparency and the power of social media today,” particularly given the fact that Google processes 90 percent of the world’s searches.
Google long has denied that it censors conservatives. Pichai explained during the roughly hour-long private meeting how the company sets up its teams and codes its algorithms to prevent bias, according to a person who attended the meeting but spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pichai’s trip to Capitol Hill comes in anticipation of his appearance at a hearing later this fall, where lawmakers stressed they would press him not only on charges of censorship but other issues facing the company — including the privacy protections it affords users and its ambitions to relaunch its search engine in heavily censored China.
Exiting the meeting, Pichai described it as “constructive and informative,” adding in a statement that Google is “committed to continuing an active dialogue with members from both sides of the aisle, working proactively with Congress on a variety of issues, explaining how our products help millions of American consumers and businesses, and answering questions as they arise.”
Pichai’s personal outreach – the beginning of more to come – caps off a bruising month for Google in the nation’s capital. It’s been dogged by a series of recent mishaps in the way it presents search results, which Trump has claimed are “rigged” against him. Fears about the tech industry’s size and power also dominated a meeting this week between the Justice Department and state attorneys general, where some officials expressed an openness in investigating Google and its tech industry peers on privacy and antitrust grounds.
Others in Washington question whether Google and the rest of the tech industry are prepared to stop foreign governments, like Russia, from spreading propaganda online ahead of the 2018 election. Yet Google infuriated lawmakers when it opted against sending Pichai or Larry Page, the chief executive of parent-company Alphabet, to testify at a Senate hearing in September on the matter. Instead, lawmakers left an empty chair at the witness table to reflect Google’s absence and pilloried the company anyway on a range of issues.
In a sign that some Democrats and Republicans remain miffed at Google, GOP Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia – the leaders of the panel that had asked Google to testify – declined to meet with Pichai this week, according to two people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to speak on the record. Burr’s office declined to comment; a spokesperson for Warner confirmed the matter.
Instead, Pichai huddled beginning Thursday with lawmakers like House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, spokespeople confirmed. Schatz used the opportunity to press Google on its privacy practices, his aide said, as he and other lawmakers continue to weigh whether they should pass new regulations restricting the way tech giants collect and monetize users’ data.
At Friday’s meeting, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he and his peers had “served notice” to Pichai to expect questions on everything from “antitrust issues” to allegations of conservative bias. The date of the hearing in front of the panel has not been announced.
“There’s a lot of interest in their algorithm, how those algorithms work, how those algorithms are supervised,” Goodlatte said.
Some Republicans also pressed Pichai on Google’s ambitions in China, though Pichai stressed that Google is far from a final decision on whether to launch a censored version of its search engine there, according to Goodlatte.
Later, Pichai was expected to shuttle over to the White House for a meeting with Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic adviser, according to three people familiar with his schedule but not authorized to discuss it publicly. Previously, Kudlow had signaled an openness to regulating Google search results in response to allegations of anti-conservative bias.