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Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies before House, addresses bias claims

Pichai is expected to answer questions about alleged political bias and the company’s dealings with China.

WASHINGTON — It’s Google’s turn.

Sundar Pichai, the tech giant’s chief executive, addressed lawmakers on Tuesday in his first appearance before Congress, where he answered questions about alleged political bias and the company’s dealings with China.

"Right now, we have no plans to launch in China," Pichai said about reports that the company was working on a censored search engine to comply with the country's information restrictions. "We don't have a search product there."

Pichai also pledged to be open about any future developments concerning its search engine's re-entry to China, which it left in 2010.

"I am committed to being fully transparent including with policymakers to the extent we ever develop plans to do that," Pichai said.

Pichai’s appearance before the House Judiciary Committee caps what has been a rough year for tech companies that have come under scrutiny from Washington politicians like never before. While it is Pichai’s first time testifying, he follows executives from Facebook and Twitter who have been asked difficult questions about their companies’ roles in facilitating foreign disinformation campaigns, as well as how they handle user data.

As tech companies have taken a more active role in cracking down on disinformation and abuse, they have also come under fire from conservatives for what they see as political bias. President Donald Trump has leveled similar accusations against Google, which Pichai is expected to counter.

Image: Sundar Pichai
Google CEO Sundar Pichai arrives to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 11, 2018.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

While Pichai fielded questions on a variety of topics, a significant portion of the proceedings took on a partisan flavor, with Republicans questioning Pichai over allegations of liberal bias and Democrats pushing back on that idea.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, referred to an email from Eliana Murillo, Google’s head of multicultural marketing, reflecting on the company’s efforts to get out the Latino vote in the 2016 election in "key states," as Jordan emphasized.

Pichai said the company did not favor Democrats or Republicans in its work.

“We don’t participate in partisan activities,” Pichai said. “We engage with both campaigns, and support and sponsor debates on both sides of the aisle.”

Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., used his opening statement to push back on conservative claims about bias, which he anticipated Republicans would ask about during the hearing.

“Before we delve into these questions, I must first dispense with an illegitimate issue — the fantasy dreamed up by some conservatives that Google and other online platforms have an anti-conservative bias,” Nadler said. “As I have said repeatedly, no credible evidence supports this right-wing conspiracy theory.”

Pichai also answered questions about Google’s data collection efforts, which have recently come under greater scrutiny.

“Google is able to collect an amount of information about its users that would even make the NSA blush," Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the House Judiciary chairman, said. "I think it is fair to say that most Americans have no idea the sheer volume of detailed information that is collected. Today, I hope to get answers on the extent of data collection and use by Google.”

Pichai said Google communicates with users about its data collection, but noted that the company is still working to address claims including that it can track the location of smartphone users even if they have opted out of location tracking.

“Today, for any service we provide our users, we go to great lengths to protect their privacy and we give them transparency, choice and control,” Pichai said. “For Google services, you have a choice of what information is collected and we make it transparent.”

Tech companies could soon face new regulations and renewed antitrust reviews as Democrats prepare to take control of the House, including proposals for new restrictions similar to the sweeping data privacy regulations put in place in Europe.

Pichai expressed general support for data privacy regulations, particularly for having consistent global rules.

“I'm of the opinion that we are better off with more of an overarching data protection framework for users, and I think that would be good to do,” Pichai said.

Google has flown under Washington’s radar compared to Facebook and Twitter, but Pichai’s absence from a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in September — which was attended by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, and Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive officer — frustrated Washington politicians. A chair with a Google placard was left empty at the hearing.

Before the hearing, Trump associate Roger Stone and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones spoke to the press about tech censorship. Jones and his media company, Infowars, were banned from a variety of tech platforms including Google-owned YouTube earlier this year.

As Pichai entered the building, Jones chanted, "Google is evil." Jones also appeared outside of the hearing with Sandberg and Dorsey.

While Facebook has been the focus of broader tech backlash, Google has also had its issues. The company has faced scrutiny from some of its employees, who oppose Google’s plan to build a censored search engine for the Chinese market. Google employees also staged a global walkout over the company’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations leveled against some senior executives.

Google has also had its own data security issues. The company announced on Monday that it would shut down Google Plus, its social network, earlier than it originally announced, after a security flaw compromised the information of 52.5 million users on the platform.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., also pushed Pichai to address the role Google and employees play in manipulating search results.

“Right now, if you Google the word ‘idiot,’ under images, a picture of Donald Trump comes up,” Lofgren said. “I just did that. How would that happen?”

Pichai elaborated on the complexity of the company’s keyword and search algorithms.

“We don't manually intervene on any particular search result,” Pichai said.

This story is developing. Please check back for updates.