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House Republicans Grill Google CEO Sundar Pichai Over Alleged Political Bias

Drew Clark

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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.)

 

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney at The CommLaw Group. He has closely tracked the trends in and mechanics of digital infrastructure for 20 years, and has helped fiber-based and fixed wireless providers navigate coverage, identify markets, broker infrastructure, and operate in the public right of way. The articles and posts on Broadband Breakfast and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed, are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

Big Tech

Government’s Reactive Nature Hobbling Tech Regulation, Expert Says

Congress may need another big tech breach to move earnestly on regulation, says consultant.

Samuel Triginelli

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Screenshot of Steve Haro at FiscalNote event

April 12, 2021 – The reactive nature of Congress to data crises means another breach of citizens’ privacy may be needed to spurn the next big legislative move, said a former congressional chief of staff.

“We still have questions to answer how to deal with technology dominance. We are not there yet because, unfortunately, Congress, for the most part, tends to act in response to crisis,” said Steve Haro, who is currently a government affairs consultant and was a former assistant secretary of commerce.

During a discussion sponsored by FiscalNote and CQ Rollcall, experts joined in a conversation on the current state of public policy for the tech industry and how influential Congress and the Biden-Harris admission will be on dealing with big tech.

Among the discussed issues was how the government will deal with intermediary liability provision Section 230.

Lawmakers have wondered whether the provision — which protects platforms from legal liability for posts by their users — offers too much protection to social networks when it comes to content moderation and disinformation. This central premise has spurned calls for a reform of Section 230; a number of Democrats have proposed their own bill to keep much of the protections except for paid posts.

“I do not believe 230 needs change, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have concerns,” Haro said. “I believe there is collective agreement this is still a necessary law, and it has worked. It has allowed the internet to build do what has become, good or bad.”

Haro pointed to the congressional hearings into Facebook’s handling of the Cambridge Analytica scandal three years ago, which saw the scraping of millions of user accounts without their consent. The result did not see substantial progress on regulations. “We might need another crisis to spur Congress into action,” Haro said.

Michael Drobac, principal at the law firm Dentons, said “we are not there, and I would say the thing that has been most present and clear is that in most of these hearings” the members of Congress are still trying to understand the technology to make a meaningful impact.

“The reality is that section 230 is as important today as it was when it was passed,” Haro said.

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Big Tech

Regulatory Commission Needed To Monitor Big Tech Collection Of Consumer Data, Professor Says

Derek Shumway

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Screenshot of Robin Gaster from Henry George School of Social Science

April 8, 2021 — There needs to be a digital regulatory commission created to ensure big tech cannot run wild with consumer data, said Robin Gaster, a George Washington University public policy scholar.

Gaster, who’s also president of Incumetrics, a data and program evaluation consultancy, published a book that was released this month about Amazon’s rise from an online bookstore to everything else.

Gaster sat down with Broadband Breakfast on Wednesday and talked about the e-commerce giant’s reach into industries like healthcare and its rapid collection of more consumer data. The solution, he proposes, is creating a “new digital deal,” which would see a sort-of digital Federal Communications Commission — an entity which has the resources and the person power to match Amazon’s growing force.

Amazon’s reach into health care needs to be met with proper oversight and ethics to ensure it really will protect consumer privacy, he said.

The e-commerce behemoth acquired PillPack, a prescription delivery company, developed the Amazon Halo, a competitor device to Fitbit, and launched Amazon Care, a telehealth app service. Add Amazon’s own Alexa AI platform into the mix and it has a stream of access to valuable data.

“I would absolutely imagine that five years from now, if you sprain your knee, you probably will not go on the Internet and look for things and trying to figure it out. You will say, ‘Alexa,’ I sprained my knee. What should I do?” said Gaster.

Amazon’s breakneck growth into healthcare is concerning because no one knows exactly what could or intends to do with all the data it possesses, Gaster said. With so much aggregated data across its products and services, Amazon needs to be held accountable for its actions so that if something goes wrong, there are ways to fix it that are open and trustworthy.

Gaster said governments and companies alike are playing “privacy theater” – they talk about protecting privacy, but it’s a mere performance put on to make it seem like they care about it, he said.

Alexa takes in all sorts of data from voice-commands and people’s Amazon accounts. It may as well be a virtual doctor someday, but people don’t know how or if they can control their data recorded by Alexa, Gaster said.

The notion that people can control their data is ridiculous, said Gaster. “We are walking across the digital plane naked. We have no clothes!” he said, adding no one can wade through the legalese in the terms and conditions and privacy statements.

Gaster’s book is entitled Behemoth – Amazon Rising: Power and Seduction in the Age of Amazon.

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Courts

Supreme Court Declares Trump First Amendment Case Moot, But Legal Issues For Social Media Coming

Benjamin Kahn

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Photo of Justice Clarence Thomas in April 2017 by Preston Keres in the public domain

April 5, 2021—Despite accepting a petition that avoids the Supreme Court deliberating on whether a president can block social media users, Justice Clarence Thomas on Monday issued a volley that may foreshadow future legal issues surrounding social media in the United States.

On Monday, the Supreme Court sent back to a lower court and ruled as moot a lawsuit over whether former President Donald Trump could block followers on Twitter, after accepting a petition by the federal government to end the case because Trump wasn’t president anymore.

The case dates back to March 2018, when the Knight First Amendment Institute and others brought a case against former president Trump in the Southern District of New York for blocking users based on their political views, arguing the practice is a violation of the first amendment.

The lower court judge agreed, and the decision was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals.

In accepting the petition by the government, Justice Thomas stated that adjudicating legal issues surrounding digital platforms is uniquely difficult. “Applying old doctrines to new digital platforms is rarely straightforward,” he wrote. The case in question hinged on the constitutionality of then-President Trump banning people from interacting with his Twitter account, which the plaintiff argued was a protected public forum.

Thomas stated that while today’s conclusion was able to be vacated, that likely would not be the case in the future. He went on to say that digital platforms exercise “concentrated control of so much speech in the hands of a few private parties.”

He continued: “We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms.”

Even though Facebook and Google were not the platforms in question in this case, Thomas pointed to them as “dominant digital platforms” and stated that they have “enormous control over speech.” He stated that Google, Facebook, and Twitter have the capabilities to suppress information and speech at will, and referenced the “cataclysmic consequences” for authors that Amazon disagrees with.

Thomas also rejected the notion that other options exist.

“A person always could choose to avoid the toll bridge or train and instead swim the Charles River or hike the Oregon Trail. But in assessing whether a company exercises substantial market power, what matters is whether the alternatives are comparable.”

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