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.)
Former Federal Trade Commission Chairman Says Biden is Inappropriately Exhorting the Agency
Former Chairman William Kovacic said that Biden’s direction of the FTC raises expectations for the agency.
WASHINGTON, January 28, 2022 – A former Federal Trade Commission chairman criticized the Biden administration’s direction of the FTC to accomplish the president’s antitrust goals.
At a Wednesday forum of the Mercatus Institute, former FTC Chairman William Kovacic criticized Joe Biden’s “instruction, direction, and exhortation” to the FTC, which is an independent agency and not part of the executive branch.
In July, President Biden directed regulators to craft rules preventing manufacturers like Microsoft and Apple from restrict consumers’ ability to fix their own devices. After the FTC voted unanimously to increase its enforcement against “right to repair” restrictions, both Microsoft and Apple announced plans for consumers to repair their own products.
Kovacic said that Biden almost appears to have the attitude that he “gave [the FTC and DOJ] an assignment” to advance the Biden administration’s consumer protection goals.
Then imagining that he was arguing from the perspective of the Biden administration, Kovacic said Biden could argue that he gave the FTC “an assignment to work on those guidelines and an exhortation to the FTC to get the work done,” as opposed to specific marching orders on the topics.
Mismatched capabilities at the FTC
Kovacic, who served as a commissioner at the FTC beginning in 2006, and who chaired the agency from 2008 to 2009, said the FTC has a history of mismatching its commitments with its capabilities.
In developing consumer protection programs, currently a professor of law at George Washington University, said the FTC often fails to ask “basic questions about who would do it, how long it would take, how much it would cost, and whether or not the institution has the credibility or capacity” to administer successful programs.
Kovacic said that in order to achieve a successful regulatory agenda, there must be a “stability of perspectives” that will endure across administrations.
Policymakers should be mindful not to abandon the resistance from total regulatory overhaul that he said “afflicted” his predecessors as chairs of the agency.
“Everybody will step forward and say, ‘I have my list.’ I suspect the Commission already is getting a letter each day from members of Congress saying, ‘here’s another one.’”
Recalling the many prior presidents’ push for regulators to control petroleum prices – including by President Biden in November – Kovacic said the FTC can’t always deliver.
“Whenever there’s going to be a problem the new leadership, seen as competition policy superheroes, will be exhorted to do something, and it will not be an adequate response to say, ‘we’ve already got a lot on the agenda, we’ll get to it when we can.'”
Facebook is Failing Iranians, and Iran’s Leaders Are About to Launch a Censored Internet
Social media platforms are harming Iran due to their ignorance of Iranian culture and the nation’s primary dialects.
WASHINGTON, January 28, 2022 – A lack of cultural understanding by Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms is a prevailing reason for inaccurate content moderation in Iran, Middle East experts said.
Moreover, and they said, Iran’s proposed international internet replacement, the National Information Network, is dangerously close to coming into effect.
Speaking at a Thursday event of the Atlantic Council designed to draw attention to the current status of social media in Iran, a human rights expert said that Big Tech’s chronic misunderstanding of the Persian language leads to censorship of content that is either entertainment-based or posted by Iranian activists.
Panelists at the event also highlighted a new report “Iranians on #SocialMedia,” as the inspiration for the discussion.
Facebook “needs someone who actually understands what is going on on the ground,” claimed Simin Kargar, a human rights and technology research fellow at Digital Forensic Research Lab. Because the company don’t employ or contract with such people, said Kargar, the platform and its sister Instagram are inappropriately censoring posts in the country.
Because of the platforms’ negligence in understanding and adapting to local concerns, the Iranian people are not benefiting from the internet.
And – because Iran also heavily monitoring and censoring the internet within its borders, the Iranian people end up being hindered by the double-whammy of Iranian and Facebook censorship, Kargar said.
Iranian censorship and Facebook censorship
Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher with the human rights organization Article19, agreed that misconceptions due to language are a dangerous foe. She made this comment when asked what America can do to help and whether American sanctions have played play a part in the rise in content moderation.
All panelists at the event said that while American sanctions against Iran impact the internet in the country, they are not responsible for what is currently happening in Iran.
However, Alimardani also blamed Meta, the new corporate name for the company that runs Facebook and Instagram, for improper and excessive content moderation.
She said Facebook currently flag anything related to the Iranian guard after the Trump Administration created a list of dangerous people that should be restricted on social media. She disagreed that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps should be listed as a foreign terrorist organization.
Is the National Information Network a new model for authoritarian regimes?
The National Information Network, the new censored internet that Iran is currently working to implement, had been planned to launch in March. Alimardani said she believes that the release will be postponed because of disagreements about who within the government will control content moderation, and the impact the firewall could have on Iranian tech companies.
Alimardani highlighted the unique nature of the Iranian law that created the national internet. Instead of being voted on by the Iranian Parliament, the legislative body deferred action on the creation of a permanent national internet only until after an experimental period with the firewall, she said.
Yet the government has been pushing its own online streaming and video platforms. These platforms are part of the government’s attempt to incentivize an Iranian national “internet.”
Throwing cheap broadband into a censored internet to sweeten the pot?
Essentially, said Kargar, the government is promising more bandwidth at a lower cost through the National Information Network. The new network is also appealing to Iranian consumers because the NIN will primarily be in the country’s major dialect.
Holly Dagres, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and the author of the “Iranians on #SocialMedia”, also spoke on the NIN. She said it would take Iran back to the Middle Ages, and also limit communication with other Iranians and with the outside world.
Consolidation, Bloat, and a Waning American ‘Brand’ Hurt the Economy, Says Tim Wu
He argued that fundamental changes must be made to restore peoples’ faith in an American system that works for everyone.
WASHINGTON, January 26, 2022 –White House Special Assistant Tim Wu said Wednesday that the U.S. economy is over-consolidated and bloated in the middle.
Speaking at an event hosted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Wu, a member of the National Economic Council with a portfolio over Technology and Competition Policy, argued that that the “American dream” has suffered major setbacks in recent decades.
Wu, who is credited with coining the term “net neutrality” and a longstanding critic of telecom monopolies, has more recently become an outspoken critic of big technology companies.
- Broadband Breakfast Explainer 1 (Net Neutrality): On the Cusp of Sea Change, Broadband Breakfast Examines the Net Neutrality Debate
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“We can see very vividly how fragile this concentrated economic system we built has been and how poorly it is working for the whole country,” Wu said.
“Our country has become too centralized. It is too national in its character – in terms of where businesses are location – too centered on consumption, as opposed to production.
“Too many of the [economic] returns go to too few people who often live very far away from the communities they serve.”
Hearkening to the post-World War II decades in which Western nations endorsed significant government intervention in the economy as part of social democracy, Wu said that America is “relearning the virtues and merits of a mixed economy – that is the truer American tradition of small and medium business – market structures where [people] can all survive and prosper; what [President Joe Biden] calls ‘an economy that works for everyone.’”
Can elements of a new form of social democracy be revived in a technology-drenched age?
Wu distilled his criticisms to three primary points: Too many industries have become too consolidated, a bloated “middleman” economy has emerged, and the “American brand” has diminished.
“We have all seen so many industries consolidate into just the ‘big three’ or ‘big four,’” Wu said. “That is a traditional problem that I think extracts a lot from the economy.”
Wu went on to explain the “middleman” economy – a rise of a “highly concentrated middle layer” across many industries. This bloat on the processing end takes place somewhere between the inception of a product or service and the consumer is extracting too much revenue, Wu said.
“When you think about monopoly – which is just high prices – it leads to this problem where the middlemen have power over their suppliers and are able to squeeze their suppliers and also often able to squeeze their employees,” Wu said. This is “a new kind of problem for the economy, and one that we need to face.”
What is the ‘American brand’?
Wu’s final point related to what he referred to as the “American brand.”
“There has been a real sense that the sense of opportunity that has been the ‘American brand’ has diminished,” he said. “The statistics are a little depressing that confirm this.”
75 percent of U.S. industries are controlled by fewer companies than they were 20 years ago, Wu said. He pointed to mergers that skyrocketed in the 1980s and predicted that 2022 will feature a record number of mergers.
“These are real challenges and I just want to assure you that the administration of the White House is very focused on [them] and we see it not just in terms of the economy, but in terms of the Democratic soul of this nation,” Wu said. “Freedom and opportunity are not trivial things when it comes to describing what democracy is all about.
- Federal Appeals Court Upholds California’s Net Neutrality Rules
- FCC Announces New RDOF Accountability and Transparency Measures, Additional Funding
- Commerce Vote on Sohn Wednesday, Facebook Abandoning its Crypto Technology, Low EBB Awareness
- Former Federal Trade Commission Chairman Says Biden is Inappropriately Exhorting the Agency
- Federal Communications Commission Approves New Provider Transparency Requirements
- Facebook is Failing Iranians, and Iran’s Leaders Are About to Launch a Censored Internet
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