Congress grills Google CEO on data collection

During a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill, Google CEO Sundar Pichai answered questions about what user data Google tracks and why.

Posted: Dec 12, 2018 10:25 AM
Updated: Dec 12, 2018 10:47 AM

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai appeared on Capitol Hill Wednesday where he faced questions from lawmakers on a number of issues, including data privacy, misinformation, a search product being developed for China, and allegations from Republicans that the search engine giant is biased against conservative users.

"All of these topics -- competition, censorship, bias, and others -- point to one fundamental question that demands the nation's attention: Are America's technology companies serving as instruments of freedom—or instruments of control?" House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said at the outset of the hearing, which was held by the House Judiciary Committee.

McCarthy added, "[T]he Free World depends on a free Internet. We need to know that Google is on the side of the Free World, and that it will provide its services free of anti-competitive behavior, political bias, and censorship."

The hearing, Pichai's first before Congress, came just a few months after a different attempt to get him to Capitol Hill turned so contentious that a Senate committee featured an empty chair in his place at a hearing.

The House Judiciary Committee has questioned technology executives at hearings throughout the year, most recently Twitter (TWTR) chief executive Jack Dorsey in September.

Those hearings have focused primarily on whether technology companies are biased against conservative users, but have touched on other issues.

Allegations of bias against conservatives

In his opening remarks, Pichai stressed to members of the House Judiciary Committee that the company operates in a nonpartisan fashion, a point he reiterated a number of times throughout the hearing.

"I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way," Pichai said. "To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests."

Republican lawmakers appeared unconvinced.

Throughout the hearing, Pichai was repeatedly asked whether the search engine discriminates against conservative politicians and ideas.

In one case, Republican Rep. Lamar Smith cited a debunked study to claim Google (GOOGL) provides biased results for searches about President Donald Trump. Smith accused Google of having a liberal bias "programmed into the company's culture."

"What actions are you going to take to counter...political bias," Smith asked.

Pichai said he would be "happy to follow up" with Smith and "explain the methodology" behind how Google surfaces results.

Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee have a history of leveling unfounded accusations of bias against technology companies.

Often citing no real evidence, and regularly appearing to fail to grasp the basics of how various technology companies operate, Republicans on the committee have allowed hearings on the issue to drift into conspiratorial waters.

They have cited fringe media outlets to accuse tech companies of political bias. They also invited pro-Trump social media personalities "Diamond & Silk" to testify at one hearing, and did not stop them from offering a significant amount of false information during their testimony.

A search engine for China?

Pichai was questioned by several lawmakers on whether Google is developing a search engine for China. Such a product, reportedly codenamed "Project Dragonfly" internally, would be forced to comply with Beijing's censorship and has spurred concerns from human rights advocates.

Pichai told the committee that Google currently has "no plans" to launch a search product in China.

However, when pressed by Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, Pichai conceded that there has been an "internal effort" at Google around a potential product for China. Pichai said the effort was being led by the company's search team. He characterized it as a "limited effort."

When asked whether Pichai would rule out "launching a tool for surveillance and censorship in China" while he is CEO, Pichai declined to answer with a yes or no.

"One of the things that's important to us as a company -- we have a stated mission of providing users with information," Pichai said. "I have a commitment, but as I've said earlier on this we'll be very thoughtful and we'll engage widely as we make progress."

Pichai later told the committee that the project has been "underway for a while" and that at one point his understanding was that more than 100 employees were working on it.

While he was testifying, a protester opened the doors to entrance of the hearing room and held up a sign about the project.

Data privacy

Pichai was pressed by lawmakers on how much data Google collects from its users, especially on its Android operating system.

Pichai largely conceded that Google collects a vast amount of data on its users, but stressed throughout the hearing that the keys to personal data on users are closely guarded and not widely available to Google employees.

Pichai noted that Google offers its users tools to determine how much information it is allowing Google and applications on the Android operating system to collect on them.

Pichai said that millions of users make changes to their account settings each day, and that 160 million individuals had checked their privacy settings in the last month.

But, in conversations with lawmakers, Pichai conceded that the company can do more to make it easier for users to control what data they allow to be collected on them.

Pichai faced a number of questions, in particular, on the location information that Google collects on its users.

He conceded that it is a "complex area," but said that location information is now part of the "fabric of how people use the internet."

Misinformation

During the hearing, Pichai was also questioned about the company's role in spreading misinformation and hate speech.

Following a Monday report by The Washington Post that found that hateful and conspiratorial content, including neo-Nazi propaganda, is still rampant on YouTube, whose parent company is Google, Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler asked Pichai what the company was doing to "combat white supremacy and right-wing extremism."

Pichai said Google has defined policies against hate speech.

"If we find violations, we will take down the content," Pichai said.

When Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin pressed Pichai specifically on the findings of the Post's story, which found that hateful content remained online and was recommended to users by YouTube's algorithm, Pichai conceded the company needed to do better.

"We are constantly undertaking efforts to deal with misinformation. We have clearly stated policies and we have made lots of progress in many of the areas where over the past year" Pichai said, adding, "We are looking to do more."

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 147582

Reported Deaths: 3937
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion24410780
Lake12911350
St. Joseph8651154
Elkhart8281130
Allen7756221
Hamilton5872113
Vanderburgh547750
Tippecanoe346414
Monroe316238
Hendricks3116130
Johnson2947127
Porter288948
Clark280857
Delaware277174
Vigo245534
Madison224587
Cass220120
LaPorte208853
Warrick185362
Floyd170865
Kosciusko169221
Howard155366
Bartholomew137557
Dubois133423
Marshall129826
Henry120728
Boone117748
Grant116839
Wayne114923
Hancock112844
Noble110033
Jackson106412
Morgan90840
Dearborn89528
Daviess82732
Gibson8229
Clinton80116
Shelby76929
Lawrence76732
LaGrange76114
Harrison72924
Putnam69415
Knox68610
DeKalb67411
Posey6695
Steuben5798
Miami5655
Montgomery55722
Fayette55615
White55615
Jasper5264
Greene50537
Scott50313
Decatur49339
Adams4555
Clay4266
Whitley4246
Ripley4138
Sullivan40612
Wells4045
Orange38124
Starke3787
Wabash3769
Spencer3656
Huntington3645
Franklin35925
Jennings35813
Washington3452
Randolph3318
Jefferson3275
Fulton3232
Pike31512
Carroll30513
Perry28214
Jay2756
Fountain2733
Tipton26123
Parke2152
Newton20511
Vermillion2031
Owen1991
Rush1984
Martin1930
Blackford1843
Crawford1401
Pulaski1401
Brown1283
Ohio1167
Benton1060
Union1010
Switzerland840
Warren721
Unassigned0233

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 181787

Reported Deaths: 5067
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin30590635
Cuyahoga19212671
Hamilton15890338
Montgomery9883184
Lucas8058370
Butler7856122
Summit6406260
Warren393360
Stark3605178
Mahoning3567283
Marion332149
Pickaway294646
Delaware275927
Lorain262389
Fairfield254156
Licking241065
Wood240181
Clark231654
Clermont225936
Trumbull2174134
Greene210840
Columbiana207887
Allen195873
Miami191056
Lake184757
Medina175542
Portage153067
Mercer143327
Ross130533
Wayne125968
Richland125724
Tuscarawas117822
Athens11452
Erie111453
Darke108850
Madison101314
Hancock97520
Auglaize92716
Lawrence88524
Putnam86127
Shelby85014
Geauga81950
Muskingum8174
Scioto7709
Belmont76827
Union7203
Ashtabula71348
Huron6909
Sandusky69022
Seneca57614
Preble57417
Ottawa55930
Holmes53710
Fulton4726
Henry44217
Jefferson4384
Defiance43713
Clinton42013
Jackson4197
Fayette4188
Crawford4088
Logan3923
Champaign3783
Highland3714
Ashland3705
Brown3583
Knox35215
Perry35011
Washington32423
Morrow3222
Williams3124
Hardin30913
Coshocton28612
Pike2780
Wyandot27813
Gallia27413
Guernsey2688
Van Wert2153
Meigs20512
Adams1936
Hocking1899
Carroll1887
Paulding1791
Monroe14118
Noble1120
Vinton853
Harrison763
Morgan690
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Overcast
48° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 39°
Feels Like: 46°
Angola
Overcast
45° wxIcon
Hi: 45° Lo: 36°
Feels Like: 45°
Huntington
Overcast
46° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 39°
Feels Like: 43°
Decatur
Overcast
46° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 40°
Feels Like: 44°
Van Wert
Overcast
46° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 40°
Feels Like: 44°
Cloudy Tuesday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events