Google CEO Sundar Pichai appeared for the first time before a congressional panel and batted away questions from lawmakers, who bombarded him about alleged bias against conservatives in search results and the company’s data collection practices.
House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte said Google was collecting so much information on its users that it would “make the NSA blush,” referring to the National Security Agency. The Virginia Republican also said the committee was interested in learning more about how Google determines what is objectionable, and allegations that biased ranking of Google’s search results could result in shifting voters’ views.
Democrats — led by New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, ranking member of the committee and likely chairman of the panel starting in January — said Tuesday’s hearing was a wasted opportunity focused on anti-conservative bias, calling the issue a “fantasy, dreamed up by some conservatives.”
The hearing, instead, should have been focused on addressing how Google is working to stop foreign influence in U.S. elections and on its data collection practices, Nadler said.
Watch: Google CEO Rejects Claims of Search Bias Against GOP
Pichai’s appearance before Congress is the first time a top Google executive has appeared before lawmakers since the 2016 election. Executives from Facebook and Twitter have appeared multiple times to answer questions on how their platforms were manipulated by foreign hackers.
While Pichai batted away questions on search engine bias, he threw his support behind broad, national data protection and privacy legislation, saying that the U.S. and the technology industry “would be better off with an overarching data protection framework.”
On search engine allegations, Pichai said studies cited by Republicans alleging bias, including one by PJ Media, were based on questionable methodologies. Pichai said Google had commissioned third-party studies and found no bias in the company’s search results.
Rep. Lamar Smith said the third-party assessors were chosen by Google. The Texas Republican also pressed Pichai on whether Google had ever punished any of its employees for manipulating search results.
“It’s not possible for an individual to manipulate search” results, Pichai responded.
Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio complained that when he searched on Google for the Republicans’ healthcare bill intended to repeal the Affordable Care Act or on the Republican-led tax cut bill, he found only negative articles on the first couple of pages.
Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat and former U.S. Air Force officer with a computer science background, said blaming Google for unsatisfactory search results was pointless. “If you want positive search results, do positive things … if you don’t want negative things don’t do negative things,” Lieu said.
In response to questions from lawmakers from both parties on Google’s data collection practices, Pichai said the company offered users multiple ways to configure their privacy settings and control what data is collected and shared. As many as 20 million Google users change their privacy settings each month, he said.
Several Democrats also pressed Pichai on Google’s efforts to build a special search engine for China, code-named Dragon Fly, that is said to be capable of censoring results as well as tracking users.
Pichai repeatedly said the effort was only an internal one and there were no plans to launch such a search engine in China. When pressed, he said as many as 100 engineers were working on a search engine intended for China, but added that the company tests several new products that don’t see the light of day.
Pressed by Rhode Island Democratic Rep. David Cicilline on whether Google was in discussions with Chinese officials on the search engine project, Pichai said the company was not in such discussions.
Google would engage with lawmakers if it chose to launch the search engine in China, he said.
On data protection and privacy regulation, Pichai said the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR, which went into effect in May, was a “well thought out, crafted piece of legislation” and that there would be “some value to have consistent global regulations.”
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