WASHINGTON, December 11, 2018 – The CEO of search engine Google came to Washington on Tuesday and politely rebutted all charges that the world’s largest search engine is biased against conservative viewpoints.
In the calm and controlled voice of an engineer, CEO Sundar Pichai said, “Our products are built without any bias,” responding to a question of the House Judiciary Committee Chairman.
“We don’t build partisan features,” he repeated later to another Republican member of the committee.
Indeed, Pichai had to contend with an almost-uninterrupted narrative – fed largely, but not completely, by members of the GOP – that Google’s search engine results were in some way systematically biased.
Moreover, as the head of one of the country’s leading information technology companies, Pichai was robustly challenged on issues ranging from the extent of Google’s surveillance-like data-collection to the existence of prototype search engine that returned restricted results – and is apparently designed to cater to the communist China market.
Pichai didn’t face as much overt hostility as was experienced by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg when he sat down for his grilling before the same committee after the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal earlier this year. But Pichai wasn’t welcomed very warmly, either.
On privacy, Pichai said that he, like Facebook CEO Zuckerberg, supported Congress considering data privacy legislation.
Does Google exhibit bias in its search engine results?
Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., set a confrontational tone, without being conspiratorial:
“While it is true that Google is not a government entity and so it does not have to comply with the First Amendment, the American people deserve to know what types of information they are not getting when they perform searches on the internet. The market works best when information about products and services is readily available, and so today – on behalf of this Committee and the American consumer – I hope to get answers from Mr. Pichai regarding who at Google makes the judgment calls on whether to filter or block objectionable content and what metrics Google uses to make those decisions.”
Pichai insisted that Google’s algorithms are designed to accurately reflect what people are talking about online at any given time. Google is not “the internet” so much as representing what is on the internet at any given time, he seemed to be saying.
“Any time you type in a keyword, we crawl copies of billions of web pages, and we take the keyword and match it against pages for relevance, freshness, popularity, how others are using the it, and we try to rank and find the best” pages for that particular keyword, he said.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., used this concept to explain why, when an individual conducts a search for the word “idiot” in Google, the image of Donald Trump comes up repeatedly.
Google doesn’t return these results because Google is making this commentary of the president, Lofgren said. Rather, Google is reflected what others internet users are saying.
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., made the same point when noting that search results of most of his fellow colleagues were not overtly imbalanced – with the exception of Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa (not a member of the Judiciary Committee) – but has recently made controversial statements about figures linked with white supremacy movements.
"If you are getting bad search results on Google, don't blame Google, blame yourself," Lieu said to his Republican colleagues.
“This is the fourth hearing in a series of ridiculous hearings [because] the First Amendment protects private individuals and corporations’ rights to freedom of speech.”
Republican representatives pile on against Google
Still, Republican after Republican had a story to tell about a gripe they had regarding Google results. Many lobbed in questions about Google’s privacy and market power.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, refused to believe that bias was not present in the curation of political content when more than 90 percent of the searches for Donald Trump produce negative stories on the president. He also referred to pro-Trump content being labelled, or “flagged,” as hate speech.
“This doesn’t happen by accident, but is baked into the algorithms,” said Smith.
Pichai disagreed, and referred to the company’s political neutrality in algorithm results as “sacrosanct.”
But Smith wasn’t buying it, and referred to the evidence of political bias on the Google platform as “irrefutable.”
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, contended that virtually every reference to a health care bill that he had introduced was “an attack on our bill.” He had to go to the third or fourth page of the search engine's results to find one that was “remotely positive.”
Replied Pichai: “We use a methodology about what is being said about a topic at any given time.
"It is in our interest to make sure we reflect what is happening out there in the most effective method possible. Our algorithms have no sense of politics.”
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., criticized an apparent divergence in the rates that are charged for the keywords being used by Republican candidates versus Democratic candidates.
Pichai said that prices for advertising were determined on the basis of automatic auctions, and that that was “why I am confident that we don’t approach our work with political bias.”
Nonethless, Pichai committed to following up with Issa to looking at the reasons for the divergent pricing of keywords for Republican versus Democratic candidates.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, pressed for details on the information collection capacities of an Android phone. Then, acknowledging that Google had a First Amendment right to present the search results it wanted, added: “I hope we don't get to the point where government comes in and regulates what is biased, because [Google] is an independent and free company.”
Privacy and China also play a role in the hearing
Pichai was also criticized repeatedly – by representatives of both parties – for its sweeping data-collection practices, and for a reported prototype of a search engine for the Chinese market.
Pichai wiggled on the question of a Chinese search engine: "We have no plans to launch in China," he said, adding, "Right now, we have no plans to launch search in China.”
Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Penn., finally got the most information out of him, when he acknowledged the existence of a prototype products for “what search would look like” in a country that require mandatory content filtering.
At one point, he said, more than 100 Google engineers were working on the project.
(Photo of Google CEO Sundar Pichai by Drew Clark.)