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Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, testifies on Capitol Hill
[NEW YORK] Sundar Pichai, Google's chief executive, testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Here are some highlights.
Republicans focus on accusations of bias
Republican lawmakers displayed the party's growing distrust toward Google, raising a broad array of tough questions on the search giant's market power, plans to relaunch service in China, and whether the site suppresses conservative content. At the core of their questions was a concern over the company's commitment to free expression.
"All of these topics — competition, censorship, bias, and others — point to one fundamental question that demands the nation's attention," said Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader. "Are America's technology companies serving as instruments of freedom or instruments of control?
"Because a free world depends on a free Internet, we need to know that Google is on the side of the free world," Mr McCarthy said.
Representative Robert W Goodlatte of Virginia, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, highlighted the importance of scrutinising Google because of the company's market power in search, cloud-based email and its Android mobile operating system.
Mr Goodlatte also raised concerns that the liberal-leaning political biases of employees may also affect filtering decisions for its search engine. He mentioned a leaked video the day after the 2016 presidential election showing top officials lamenting the victory of President Donald Trump.
"This committee is very interested in what justifies filtering," Mr Goodlatte said. "Given the revelation that top executives at Google have discussed how the results of the 2016 elections do not comply with Google's values, these questions have become all the more important."
Mr McCarthy is among several Republican members who have made online political bias a talking point in campaign fundraisers. Claims of anti-conservative bias within the technology of Google, Facebook and Twitter have been disputed by numerous technologists and academics.
Democrats had their own set of tough questions for Mr Pichai on privacy and the company's competitive practices. But they also expressed frustration with the political bias claims.
"I must dispense with the complete illegitimate fantasy dreamed up by some conservatives that Google and other platforms have anti-conservative bias," said Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the committee.
Praise for Google as well
Officials were expected to be merciless for Mr Pichai's first appearance before Congress. When he declined to appear in a Senate hearing in September, lawmakers called the act "arrogant", and they put out an empty chair in his absence.
Though lawmakers asked Mr Pichai a variety of pointed questions, they also lauded Google as an American icon.
"Your company should really be held out as a success story of America's free enterprise system," said Representative Keith Rothfus, a Republican from Pennsylvania.
"Despite the nature and scope of today's hearing, Google is still the story of the American dream," Mr Goodlatte said.
"We do not want to impose burdensome regulations on your industry," said Representative Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana.
Going into a third hour of the hearing, Republicans offered little detail on how they would follow up on concerns about privacy and anti-conservative bias.
Democrats, in large part, defended the company of political bias claims.
Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California, said negative news coverage of members like Representative Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, were perhaps the result of his views on immigration.
"Don't blame Google or Facebook or Twitter, consider blaming yourself," Mr Lieu said.
Location, location, location
During Mr Pichai's testimony, the first question from Mr Goodlatte was about whether consumers understand the frequency and amount of location data that Google collects from its Android operating system.
It was the first of many questions directed at Mr Pichai about the collection of location data and apps that run on Android smartphones, some citing an investigation by The New York Times. Mr Pichai said repeatedly that Google offers users controls for limiting location data collection and that it did not sell user data, carefully avoiding the question of how the company uses such data in the practice of selling advertising.
The sharpest exchange came when Representative Ted Poe, a Republican from Texas, held up his smartphone and asked Mr Pichai whether Google was tracking his whereabouts if he walked to the other side of the room.
Mr Pichai said, "not by default," adding that it depended on the congressman's settings on the apps he had installed. But when Mr Pichai would not respond yes or no, Mr Poe raised his voice and said Mr Pichai appeared to be evading his question.
"You make US$100 million a year," he said to Mr Pichai, who is one of the highest-paid executives in the technology industry. "You should be able to answer that question," "I'm shocked you don't know. I think Google obviously does."
The protesters were out in full force.
Alex Jones, the Infowars founder, stormed through the hallways of the Capitol, chanting "Google is evil! Google is evil!" He was followed by a horde of television cameras and photographers. When a police officer told him to quiet down or he would be arrested, he said that he was there to protest that Mr Pichai "was taking away my free speech and lying about it." YouTube, which is owned by Google, terminated Infowar's channel on the video-sharing site in August.
Roger Stone, the longtime political operative, followed Mr Jones through the hallways. He was more reserved, but expressed similar concerns about Google and other Internet companies "shadow banning" conservative voices and their "antitrust activities". He said it was "un-American" for Internet companies to prevent him from defending himself.
Taking on Google
Before the hearing, Google's critics drew attention to their grievances against the company that became fodder for lawmakers.
A group of employees, who organised a walkout of 20,000 workers from the company's offices last month over its harassment and discrimination policies, released a letter stating that Google's concessions to the protests were not enough and that it planned to push for the end of mandatory arbitration in all cases and for all employees, including temporary and contract staff. The protests were prompted by an article in The New York Times in October revealing that Google had paid millions of dollars in exit packages to male executives accused of misconduct, while staying silent about the transgressions.
"But just as Google wants to convince the public that it can handle consumer privacy matters behind closed doors," the employee group wrote, "it tells the same to its employees by forcing arbitration, requiring them to waive their right to sue or participate in a class-action lawsuit in all cases of discrimination."
Separately, more than 50 human rights organisations signed a letter to Mr Pichai demanding that the company stop working on Project Dragonfly, the initiative within Google to build a censored search engine that it may use in the Chinese market. A search engine that restricts content banned by the Chinese government is "troubling," the groups said, because it would contribute to repressive censorship and surveillance.
Problems at Google Plus
Google has eight products with more than a billion monthly users, including search, YouTube and Google Drive, its suite of productivity apps. But a product that has struggled to amass users prompted questions from lawmakers about Google's handling of user data.
Google announced Monday that it found a security vulnerability last month in Google Plus, the company's answer to Facebook. The problem exposed the personal information of 52 million users to third-party developers even if the users had set their information to private. Google said it had no evidence that any developers were aware of or had misused the vulnerability during the six days that the bug existed. Google said it would now move up the timing of when it plans to shutter the consumer version of Google Plus, to April from August.
In October, Google announced that it found a similar security issue with Google Plus. Google found this vulnerability in March but did not report it immediately, waiting seven months to disclose the bug because it had found no evidence that anyone had exploited the problem to obtain user information. However, it brought new light to questions about how big technology companies handle user data.