President Donald Trump is accusing Google and other U.S. tech companies of rigging their search results about him "so that almost all stories & news is BAD." (Aug. 28) AP
Google CEO Sundar Pichai delivers the keynote address at the Google I/O 2018 Conference at Shoreline Amphitheater on May 8, 2018, in Mountain View, Calif. Google's two day developer conference runs through May 9, 2018. (Photo: JUSTIN SULLIVAN, Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO – First, Google's chief executive officer Sundar Pichai had an empty seat. Now he's in the hot seat.
In September, Google’s parent company Alphabet refused to send its chief executive Larry Page or Pichai to testify before a Senate intelligence committee hearing. So U.S. senators set out a chair bearing Google’s name and repeatedly took shots at the internet giant for being a no-show.
On Tuesday, Pichai will embark on a peacemaking mission in Washington with his first-ever appearance before Congress. He'll likely face the bipartisan backlash that has battered the internet giant’s rivals like Facebook for months.
"We recognize the important role of governments, including this committee, in setting rules for the development and use of technology," Pichai will say, according to testimony posted Monday on the House Judiciary Committee's website.
The hearing before the House Judiciary Committee marks the beginning of a new political reality for Pichai, an engineer by training who grew up in Chennai, India, and is far more at home on Google's Mountain View, California, campus than on Capitol Hill. Once a darling of the Obama administration, Google is facing tougher scrutiny of its business practices and new threats of regulation from the Trump administration.
Lawmakers have held hearings in recent months discussing the need for stronger federal protections regulating the collection of people's personal online information. State attorneys general have also discussed alleged antitrust violations and Republican allegations of censorship of conservative voices.
Though the possibility of legislation to curb the power of tech companies still remains slim, with regulation-shy Republicans controlling the Senate, public statements from Democrats have increasingly put Google and others on the defensive.
Expected to top the agenda of Tuesday’s hearing,"Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and Its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices": Republican allegations of bias against conservatives in search results.
In his prepared testimony, Pichai tackled the allegations head on.
"I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way. To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests," Pichai wrote. "We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions – and we have no shortage of them among our own employees."
He also painted Google as a company that supports privacy legislation ("We have invested an enormous amount of work over the years to bring choice, transparency, and control to our users") and a company that has deep American roots, in anticipation of questions over Google's possible plans to re-enter the China search market with a product that censors results sensitive to Beijing.
Google abandoned that market in 2010 over concerns about censorship and government intrusion. A number of House Judiciary Committee members sent a letter to Pichai earlier this year demanding more information on the project codenamed Dragonfly. Facing a revolt from employees, Pichai has said Google has not yet decided whether to move forward with the search product.
Other topics will likely include Google’s handling of user data and its handling of sexual harassment cases. More than 20,000 employees walked off the job in November to protest revelations in a New York Times article that the company quietly paid out millions to male executives accused of misconduct.
This photo taken on August 23, 2018 shows the Google logo on display at the Smart China Expo at Chongqing International Expo Center in southwest China's Chongqing. (Photo: STR, AFP/Getty Images)
“Online technology is now an integral part of most Americans’ modern lifestyle. It has globalized society and made it possible for people to connect across continents, explore vast amounts of information, and share meaningful dialogue with friends. However, the technology behind online services like social media and Internet search engines can also be used to suppress particular viewpoints and manipulate public opinion,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said in a statement. “Americans put their trust in big tech companies to honor freedom of speech and champion open dialogue, and it is Congress’ responsibility to the American people to make sure these tech giants are transparent and accountable in their practices.”
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Until now, the internet giant has largely avoided heavy scrutiny from Washington even as concerns mount over its dominance of the search business around the world and the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories on its YouTube video service.
That changed a few months ago when Google refused to send Page or Pichai, offering up Kent Walker, its top lawyer. Richard Burr (R., N.C.), who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, rejected that offer. Instead, lawmakers grilled Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about Russian election meddling, online privacy and political bias on tech platforms and then cranked up public criticism of Google.
A trip to Capitol Hill was hastily arranged. Pichai, 46, met with lawmakers from both parties, including a sit down with House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, and agreed to appear before Congress.
Since then, Pichai has been working to solidify relationships with GOP lawmakers and conservative groups. Last week, he took part in a White House business roundtable that included other tech leaders such as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Oracle co-chief executive Safra Catz.
President Donald Trump and his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, have accused Silicon Valley companies of liberal bias that has led to the suppression and censorship of conservative voices. In August, Trump claimed search results for "Trump News" were "RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD ." Google has repeatedly denied any political bias in Internet search results.
McCarthy had also chastised Google for search results, tweeting that results that incorrectly said the ideology of the California Republican Party included "Nazism" were a "disgrace." Google blamed "vandalism" at Wikipedia.
More: 'Fake social,' 'fake search' are the new 'fake news' as Trump attacks tech ahead of midterms
Also: Trump says Google ignored his State of the Union address; Google disagrees
In his prepared testimony, Pichai emphasized the political diversity of Google employees. "Some of our Googlers are former servicemen and women who have risked much in defense of our country. Some are civil libertarians who fiercely defend freedom of expression. Some are parents who worry about the role technology plays in our households. Some—like me—are immigrants to this country, profoundly grateful for the freedoms and opportunities it offers. Some of us are many of these things," he wrote.
Censorship charges have been raised in multiple hearings on Capitol Hill against Silicon Valley tech companies. A recent poll from the Media Research Center conducted by McLaughlin & Associates found that 65 percent of self-described conservatives believe that social media companies intentionally censor the political right.
Until recently, lawmakers had focused their criticism on Facebook, after a series of privacy blunders and the unchecked spread of online propaganda by Russia agents during and after the 2016 presidential election. CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified on Capitol Hill in April.
Google was frequently mentioned during a meeting earlier this year with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and state law enforcement officials exploring potential antitrust and data privacy investigations.
Reports that Google employees debated ways to alter search results after the 2016 presidential election and an internal video obtained by right-wing news site Breitbart showing executives of Alphabet expressing dismay at the outcome of the presidential election added fuel to charges by the political right that Google is biased against conservatives.
“Recent reports suggest Google might not be wielding its vast power impartially. Its business practices may have been affected by political bias. Additionally, reports claim the company is compromising its core principles by complying with repressive censorship mandates from China,” McCarthy said in a statement. “Mr. Pichai’s scheduled appearance in front of the House Judiciary Committee is another important step to restoring public trust in Google and all the companies that shape the internet.”
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