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After months of wrangling, members of Congress finally had Google CEO Sundar Pichai right where they wanted him on Tuesday — testifying in front of a House oversight committee.
But instead of data privacy, antitrust, the abuse of market power, China or any number of other crucial topics, partisanship in the form of Republican questions about political bias at Google dominated the House Judiciary session.
What had been a notion floated by some Republican House Judiciary members in July took center stage on Tuesday.
“A significant portion of this hearing was a waste of time because the First Amendment protects private individuals and corporations' free speech rights,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., who did not hide his disappointment that Pichai was asked repeatedly about allegations that Google was biased against conservatives, which even if true was protected by the Constitution.
The growing understanding of the impact of internet-based technology on the lives of the vast majority of U.S. citizens — and the realization that those platforms can and have been used surreptitiously by foreign actors — has led to an unprecedented level of political scrutiny on major tech companies, in particular Google and Facebook.
House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., touched on those changes in his opening statement while also giving a nod to the political bias allegations.
“Because the free world depends on a free internet, we need to know that Google is on the side of the free world and that it will provide its services free of anti-competitive behavior, political bias, and censorship,” McCarthy said.
Growing scrutiny led Google and Facebook to begin taking action against misinformation, abuse and foreign actors, moves that have drawn some accolades but has also opened the companies to accusations of bias, which have been compounded by leaks of internal communications and data showing that tech employees tend to donate to Democrats.
Google and Facebook have both rejected accusations that they operate their companies with a liberal slant, but that has done little to quell the growing consensus among conservatives of tech’s anti-conservative leanings. Pew Research found earlier this year that most Republicans no longer trust tech companies to be neutral. Those views have filtered up to Republican politicians including President Donald Trump, who has lobbed political bias accusations at Google.
While Google denies accusations of bias, the claims against the company could actually could help it avoid new regulations by fueling a partisan split and paralyzing any action in Congress.
“The tech debate is becoming increasingly partisan, and this should worry anyone who is concerned about individual autonomy in the face of this sector,” Dipayan Ghosh, a fellow at the think tank New America and a former privacy and public policy adviser at Facebook, wrote in an email. “As the debate becomes more and more partisan, it becomes more and more unlikely that we will see Congress coming together on a bipartisan basis to legislate on important matters from privacy to market competition facing the nation.”
While the debate about bias in tech companies may stall the move to further regulate tech companies, the sight of a Google CEO subjected to tough questions struck some policy veterans as a significant change from recent history.
Luther Lowe, senior vice president of public policy at Yelp, which has been one of the most vocal critics of Google’s use of its market power, said Congress was more aggressive with Pichai than it had been in 2011 when Eric Schmidt, then Google’s executive chairman, was questioned by the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee.
Lowe noted that while Congress might not end up establishing new regulations on Google and other companies, the broader political skepticism of tech giants could spur regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, to act.
“What I saw today was a bunch of people that are mad about Google,” Lowe said. “Now, some of it is for crazy reasons, but some of it is for legit reasons. So the takeaway for the FTC is you have a massively long leash to undertake enforcement actions.”
Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy and technology policy at the nonprofit Consumer Reports, said that the political bias debate was more about Republicans “working the refs” to gain more favorable coverage.
Beyond the bias debate, the hearing indicated the growing appetite for tech oversight, which Brookman said has some bipartisan elements.
“In general, the attitudes societally but also in D.C. especially have shifted a lot in the last couple years,” said Brookman, who previously was policy director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Technology Research and Investigation.
And, he noted, as far as hearings go, the one Tuesday wasn’t actually that partisan, with indications that both Republicans and Democrats held similar views on Google’s market power.
“I’ve seen a more partisan hearing,” he said.