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Google should have been grilled by more intelligent lawmakers than the House Republicans

The technical illiteracy of the most powerful deliberative body in the world is dangerous, but it is dangerous by design as well as by accident.
Image: Google CEO Sundar Pichai is sworn in before testifying to a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on Dec. 11, 2018.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai is sworn in before testifying to a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on Dec. 11, 2018.Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Committee hearings — in the House even more than the Senate — are always a showcase for the worst aspects of the embarrassing, benighted gerontocracy of the American legislature. That happens not least because the most senior members of most committees ask their questions first, and those tend to be the representatives from the safest districts and thus the members least interested in actual governance and the most invested in petty squabbles with the press and industry, as those are the fights that will help them get elected to a fifteenth term.

So Tuesday’s interrogation of Google CEO Sundar Pichai by the House Judiciary was a terrific use of a hugely powerful public forum in the world’s foremost democracy — at least it was, if you’ve always wanted to ask the CEO of Google, for example, how to get the crown prince of Nigeria to pay up after giving him your checking account routing number. Or whether that email forward from your golfing buddy is correct about Mark Zuckerberg giving away free iPads to anyone who buys a reverse mortgage.

It actually wasn't much smarter than that: Throughout the hearing, representatives like Steve King R-Iowa, and Ted Poe, R-Texas, blasted Pichai for problems they had with iPhones (which, as Pichai observed to King, Google does not manufacture). Florida’s John Rutherford asked Pichai to send him “a printout” of the data Google had collected on him.

But there was a sinister cast to much of the questioning, too: Plenty of senior Republicans wanted to know what Google was doing to defend them from the threat of negative search results when people used Google’s search product to learn about them or their legislation. “I googled American Healthcare Act [intended to repeal Obamacare] and virtually every article was an attack on our bill!” whined Steve Chabot, R-Ohio.

It’s undoubtedly too much at this point to expect shame or, indeed, any kind of introspection from Republican politicians, who seem fine with having installed a uniquely incompetent and compromised game show host as head of the executive branch. But it is useful to look at what all of Tuesday's nonsense was in service of, because there did seem to be a strategy behind it.

Foremost among many distinguished contributors to this strategy was Lamar Smith of Texas, who presented Pichai with a chart published by right-wing site PJ Media and authored by anti-vax favorite and Benghazi conspiracist Sharyl Attkisson (who, to her credit, had the grace to call the chart “subjective” in the blog post where it originates), which he pronounced “irrefutable” evidence of a biased search algorithm that prevents conservatives from reaching the number of people Smith felt they ought to reach.

But behind the content-free bad-faith posturing was a real threat: If Google does not correct for its perceived “political bias,” the laissez-faire free marketeers of the Republican party might suffer a sudden attack of Marxism and correct the company's supposed bias for them.

For instance, King demanded a list of the 1,000 people — Pichai’s estimate — who work on Google’s search algorithm (which is designed to analyze search terms in several different kinds of context, including, in most cases, its often scarily-accurate perception of what the user is looking for based on past behavior across Google’s products) to enable Republicans to police those engineers’ “political bias” until it better pleased him. “Look at their social media, and if that doesn't solve this problem, the next step is to publish the algorithms,” he told Pichai. “If that doesn't happen, the next step is amendments to section 230” — the law that absolves platforms of responsibility for the material published through their systems — ”and beyond that is a Teddy Roosevelt step,” a reference to trust-busting.

This would pain King considerably, he said — “I don’t want to regulate anything” — but a public discourse in which he is criticized with impunity in public is, he implied, simply too high a price for the country to pay.

Regulating Google closely — even breaking it up — might well be very good for society, but only insofar as the people doing the breaking weren’t seeking to enable the worst parts of Google’s operations (like its ability to surface unending far-right messaging to unsuspecting YouTube users looking for videos of new games or movie trailers) and to squelch dissent into the bargain.

It’s already an article of faith among people who oppose Google’s excesses that the company ought to be brought into closer alignment with the values of the society that has allowed it to grow to terrifying and formidable size, but those values might need some fine-tuning if they give power to people like King, the sort of legislator gleefully stops in to a racist nationalist talk show during a trip to the sites of the Holocaust.

Republicans at Tuesday's hearings hardly touched on Google's near-monopolistic power, except to threaten to end it if Google doesn't accede to their political demands — or the wonky algorithms which do, in fact, serve up not just fascist bloviations but total fabulism and conspiracy theories, especially if users view content the algorithm sees as fascism- or lunacy-adjacent.

Make no mistake, the technical illiteracy of the most powerful deliberative body in the world is dangerous, but it is dangerous by design as well as by accident. The Google hearing represented a humiliating missed opportunity to demand that the man in charge of a huge percentage of the world’s virtual communications infrastructure take responsibility for the its well-documented role in Russian meddling in the 2016 election (for which Facebook and Twitter have taken most of the blame), and its unparalleled utility as a recruiting mechanism for extremists from ISIS to murderous neo-Nazis.

House Republicans appear to be completely uninterested in the complex aspects of those platforms that could be altered to make Google more benign and fair — not just because they’re lazy, but because they’d rather maintain a malevolent system that acts in their particular interest.