Google CEO faces Congress over conservative bias, data priv…

Google CEO Sundar Pichai is facing a grilling from lawmakers Tuesday.

The leader of the world’s largest search engine is taking the stand before the House Judiciary Committee in Washington, DC, where members of Congress will question him about everything from data privacy to the company’s efforts in China.

But for the Republican-led House, the big topic of discussion is alleged bias against conservatives on Google’s platforms, such as its search results and its YouTube video-sharing service.

“I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way,” Pichai said in prepared testimony, released by the committee on Monday. “To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests. We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions — and we have no shortage of them among our own employees.”

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Those words are unlikely to satisfy House Republicans, who will likely push back.

“Online technology is now an integral part of most Americans’ modern lifestyle,” Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, said in a statement. “However, the technology behind online services like social media and Internet search engines can also be used to suppress particular viewpoints and manipulate public opinion.”

The hearing is Pichai’s first before Congress, and it’s been a long time in the making. In September, he skipped a high-profile tech hearing that included Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Both Pichai and Larry Page, the CEO of Google parent Alphabet, had been invited but neither showed up. Congress made clear its disappointment, setting an empty chair and a name tag reading “Google” next to the two tech luminaries who did appear. Their absence drew widespread anger from lawmakers.

Pichai, meanwhile, has been trying to mend Google’s relationship with the federal government. Pichai, along with leadership from Microsoft, Oracle and other tech companies, attended a meeting last week at the White House to discuss topics such as 5G wireless networks and internet innovation. Pichai also reportedly went to Washington in September to meet with lawmakers, including Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, in closed-door meetings.

Tuesday’s hearing comes as Silicon Valley faces a reckoning with both the government and public over data collection practices and misinformation on their platforms. Google has managed to escape much of the criticism that’s been heaped on Facebook, which remains under fire for having been slow to respond to Russian interference in the 2016 election, and mishandling the data of tens of millions of its 2.3 billion users in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

On Wednesday, however, the spotlight is solely on Google.

Unanswered questions

Republicans are eager to question Pichai on alleged anticonservative bias at Google, which, like most of Silicon Valley, is seen as a largely liberal-leaning company.

In August, President Donald Trump accused Google of skewing search results in a liberal direction. He tweeted that Google’s search results are “rigged,” saying the company is “suppressing voices of Conservatives.” He also tweeted a video claiming Google promoted former President Barack Obama’s State of the Union addresses every January but not his. Trump added the hashtag #StopTheBias.

Google rejected his claim, noting that its home page did promote the president’s address in January. The company also said it didn’t promote either Trump’s or Obama’s address from their first years in office because those speeches aren’t technically considered State of the Union addresses. A screenshot from the Internet Archive, which records web domains, backed up Google.

Still, Republicans have fodder for complaints.

After the Trump administration launched a controversial travel ban involving seven Muslim-majority countries, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google employees discussed tweaking search results to show users how they could contribute to pro-immigration causes.

And two days after the 2016 election, Google’s leadership expressed dismay over Trump’s victory, according to a video of a companywide meeting leaked to Breitbart in September.

Google has also been roiled by reports about Project Dragonfly, its apparent plan to build a censored search engine for China, eight years after retreating from the country. At the time of its departure, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union, cited the “totalitarianism” of Chinese policies for the company’s moves.

Pichai, who’s been described as a driving force behind the project, has said Google’s search efforts in China are only “exploratory” and that the company isn’t close to launching a search product there.

The search giant has also dealt with controversies over security and data privacy. In October, Google announced it would be  shutting down its Google+ social network, months after the company found and fixed a security flaw that might’ve exposed the personal data of 500,000 Google+ users. But Google had disclosed the problem only after a report in The Wall Street Journal.

On Monday, Google said it found another Google+ bug that affected more than 50 million people. The vulnerability prompted Google to fast-track the social network’s shutdown, originally planned for August, to April. 

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