Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before Congress on Tuesday amid increasing political scrutiny of big tech.
Pichai, appearing before the House Judiciary Committee, was asked about its secretive efforts to make a censored search engine for China and allegations of conservative bias, a favourite cause of the American right.
Business Insider attended the hearing, and you can read our live updates as they happened below.
13:40: Aaaaaaand it’s over.
After about three and a half hours of questioning, it’s all over.
Snap verdict: This entire exercise felt like a waste of time and resources.
Republicans were more interested in asking about anecdotes and unsuccessfully trying to snare Sundar Pichai than properly interrogating Google’s immense power and data collection practices, with some questions – like one from Steve King – being borderline nonsensical.
The Google CEO was rarely spooked, but on the few occassions he was really pushed by a knowledgeable questioner – like on Google’s plans for China – he was clearly evasive
13:21: “The iPhone is made by a different company.”
Controversial Republican congressman Steve King made a nonsensical criticism of Google that undermined itself when he asked Sundar Pichai how something happened on an iPhone being used by one of his grandchildren, prompting the CEO to respond carefully: “The iPhone is made by a different company.”
King was complaining about a message of some kind popped up on screen about him using apparently unpleasant language. After Pichai’s response, he backtracked, saying it could have been an Android too.
Pichai suggested it might have been a notification from another app, and said his team would follow up and to get more information.
12:55: Sundar Pichai says Google will look into its use of forced arbitration.
Earlier this year, Google ended its use of forced arbitration in sexual harassment cases. In questioning from Democrat Jayapal as Google would end it more broadly, Pichai said it would look into the matter, but didn’t make any concrete commitments.
12:45: Pichai gets grilled about paedophile conspiracy theories on YouTube.
Democrat Raskin asks Pichai about “Frazzledrip” – a feverish far-right conspiracy theory that holds Hillary Clinton and other political elites drink childrens’ blood.
Pichai says “we are constantly undertaking efforts to deal with misinformation … we are looking to do more … it’s an area we acknowledge there’s more work to be done.”
Raskin contrasts the complaints some of his Republican colleagues have made about negative Trump information being displayed prominently on Google to the absurd conspiracy theories circulating on YouTube. Only one, he said, is “material that is a clear public danger.”
12:30: Sundar Pichai is incredibly evasive about Google’s plans in China.
Sundar Pichai gets properly grilled by Cicilline about Google’s plans for China – and is incredibly evasive about whether or not it ever plans to re-enter the county. The full exchange is worth reading in full, below, to see how Pichai fails to answer the questions put to him.
Cicilline: Are any employees currently having product meetings on this Chinese project? And if not, when did those end?
Pichai: We have taken on an internal effort, but right now there are no plans to launch a search service in China, as I said earlier.
Cicilline: Are there any current discussions with any member of the Chinese government on launching this app?
Pichai: Currently, we are not in discussions around launching a search project in China.
Cicilline: Are there any current discussions with members of the Chinese government about this?
Pichai: This effort currently is an internal effort. I’m happy to, be transparent to the extent we take steps towards launching a product in China.
Cicilline: And who at Google is leading the Dragonfly effort?
Pichai:Our efforts around building search is undertaken by our search teams, but these are distributed efforts. It’s a limited effort internally currently.
Cicilline: Will you, Mr. Pichai, rule out launching a tool for surveillance and censorship in China while you are CEO of Google?
Pichai:Congressman, I commit to engaging. One of the things that’s important to us as a company, we have a stated mission of providing users with information, and so we always think it’s in our duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information. I have a commitment, but as I’ve said earlier on this we’ll be very thoughtful and we’ll engage wide as we make progress.
12:27: More and more and more questions of anti-conservative bias.
As expected, Republican congresspeople are asking about the anti-conservative bias allegations again and again and again. Pichai is largely sticking to some rote lines, and trying to avoid being discourteous as he dismisses the premise of their questions.
12:12: The Monopoly Man is here…
There’s a low-key protest taking place behind Sundar Pichai: The Monopoly Man is here…
— Geoffrey A. Fowler (@geoffreyfowler) December 11, 2018
… and his moustache keeps growing!
Monopoly Man’s mustache appears to have grown over the 2 hours of this hearing pic.twitter.com/y4C0ivULCU
— Geoffrey A. Fowler (@geoffreyfowler) December 11, 2018
12:05: Marino presses Pichai again on entering China.
Earlier in the hearing, Marino asked Pichai what has changed since 2010 when Google left the Chinese marketplace.
Pichai reiterated that, “right now, there are no plans for us to launch a search product in China.”
Picahi said that if Google ever reached a decision to work with China he will be fully transparent and engage with US policy makers.
10:40: Pichai acts obtuse over location tracking.
Questioned by Republican congressperson Poe, Pichai appeared obtuse on the subject as to whether Google tracked users’ phones.
Poe asked that if he moved to the other side of the room, Google would track his location. Pichai said he needed to know more info about the congressperson’s settings, and “I genuinely don’t know without looking.”
It’s an answer that is technically accurate – but not exactly representative of how Google does track hundreds of millions of users’ location data constantly, likely without many of their informed consent.
10:32: A testy exchange between Republican Jim Jordan and Pichai.
Jordan aggressively pushes Pichai over an internal email in which a Google employee talks about their work getting out the Latino vote “in key states,” alleging it as evidence of political bias. Pichai, seeming flustered, said there was no evidence that Google as a company did this but that “employees do their own activities.”
10:20: A protester just temporarily interrupted the hearing.
Congressperson Cohen’s (D-TN) questioning was just interrupted by a protester standing in the door holding a poster that linked Google to China – an apparent criticism of Google’s Chinese search engine links (though it’s not totally clear). They were summarily ejected from the building.
10:11: Sundar Pichai: “Right now, we have no plans to launch in China.”
Google’s efforts to build a search engine for China comes up for the firs time, courtesy of a question of Democratic congressman person Jackson Lee.
Pichai plays down the reports, saying “right now, we have no plans to launch in China.”
This might technically be true – Google doesn’t have a launch plan right now – but it doesn’t seem reflective of the reality of the project, as revealed in a series of bombshell reports in The Intercept. The news site reported that it was at one stage just months from launch, before the leaks disrupted the plans.
10:05: Sundar Pichai, too, has suffered from bad SEO.
Congressman Chabot, a Republican, against beats the bias drum, this time complaining that search results for the abortive attempted Obamacare repeal and GOP tax cuts were very negative.
Pichai responds that he, too, has suffered from bad SEO. “I understand the frustration of seeing negative news … seen it on me … what is important here is we use robust methodology to reflect what is being said about any given topic at any given time.”
09:55: Republican congressperson Smith from Texas and Pichai spar over anti-conservative bias allegations.
Congressperson Smith pushes Pichai repeatedly over anti-conservative bias allegations, while the CEO does his best to answer politely that none of what Smith is saying is true.
“the political bias now baked into the company’s culture,” Smith said, citing “irrefutable” studies on the subject.
“With respect … we don’t agree with the methodology” of the studies, Pichai said.
Smith claims there have been no independent third-party studies of Google’s search results, and asks if Google would let them. Pichai responds, no, actually, there have. Smith says he understands they weren’t independent. Pichai responds no, actually, they were.
9:42: Goodlatte pushes Pichai on data collection.
Kicking off, Goodlatte asks Pichai whether the average user understands the volume of data Google collects on them, notably constant location tracking.
“It’s really important for us that average users are able to understand it,” he said responds, citing a Privacy Checkup tool.
07:33: Sundar speaks!
And now it’s time for Sundar Pichai, the sole witness in today’s hearing, to speak. After being sworn in, his opening remarks seem to be pretty much the same as his written testimony, which you can read in full here.
09:30: Democratic congressperson Nadler shoots down anti-conservative bias allegations.
Congressperson Nadler, the ranking Democratic member of the committee, shot down the allegations of anti-conservative bias in no uncertain terms in his opening statement.
It is a “totally illegitimate issue,” he said. “No credible evidence supports this right-wing conspiracy theory,” and none of the Republican congresspeople’s expected questions on the subject “will actually make it true.” What’s more, he added, even if it was true, it’d be Google’s right as a private company.
Nadler says he’s more interested in learning more about issues like how Google hates fight speech, privacy issues, and data piracy.
09:24: Chairman Bob Goodlatte gives his opening statement: “Google collects an amount of info about its users that would make even the NSA blush.”
Now committee chairman Bob Goodlatte gives his opening statement ahead of Sundar Pichai’s testimony.
He outlines some of the key areas the Judiciary committee is looking for answers on, including: How Google blocks objectionable content; how Google tracks its users; allegations of anti-competitive behaviour and consumer choice.
“Google collects an amount of info about its users that would make even the NSA blush,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say most Americans have no idea the sheer. volume of data being collected.”
10:15: Sundar Pichai takes his seat after House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy gives a statement.
Kevin McCarthy, the House’s majority leader, gave a statement outlining his concerns about Google, summarizing: “We need to know Google is on the side of the free world.” Issues including allegations of bias, anti-competitive behaviour, and the Chinese search engine project, “Dragonfly.”
After that, Sundar Pichai takes his seat!
10:06: We’re waiting on Sundar…
The hearing was nominally supposed to kick off on the hour, Sundar Pichai has yet to arrive in the room. Photographers and journalists are standing around, twiddling their thumbs. Stay tuned!
09:57: The internet’s most notorious conspiracy theorist is here.
That’s right – Alex Jones, of Infowars infamy is in the building.
He entered with Roger Stone (the veteran Republican operative), then started causing a scene while Stone was hanging back. Jones was screaming about being censored in the middle of the hallway, which prompted police to tell him they would arrest him if he didn’t back up against the wall. He quickly cooperated and began screaming.
Jones is a regular fixture at events like these – he also turned up for Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s hearing, complaining of alleged conservative “censorship.”
Jones finally got booted off mainstream social media sites earlier this year after years of hoax-spreading, including lies about the parents of the Sandy Hook victims that led to vicious and sustained harassment from his supporters.
09:51: Sundar Pichai’s prepared remarks
The Google CEO’s introductory remarks were released ahead of time. They’re fairly anodyne, and pretty much what you’d expect: He affirms Google’s support of America and American values, tells his own story, and challenges any allegations of bias.
“We work hard to ensure the integrity of our products, and we’ve put a number of checks and balances in place to ensure they continue to live up to our standards. 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,” he will say, according to the document.
“We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions – and we have no shortage of them among our own employees. Some of our Googlers are former servicemen and women who have risked much in defence 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.”
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