Google CEO Sundar Pichai made his long-awaited appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday to testify, and receive a grilling, about censorship of political conservatives and a planned search engine for communist China.
As expected, like other heads of fellow technology companies such as Facebook and Twitter, Pichai denied any prejudice in its services or products.
“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. We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions — and we have no shortage of them among our own employees.”
Google’s best-known and most important service is Internet search, to the degree that the corporate name is now a verb (“Google it”) when referring to researching terms on the Web. Pichai said its search results are based on algorithms that are not influenced by its heavily liberal body of employees, mostly based in Silicon Valley.
Yet even the average conservative user of Google search sees every day that any research on political figures or issues – whether it is a news search, or images, or video (YouTube, which is owned by Google), or even just a broad general search – delivers results that are heavily skewed from left-wing, anti-conservative sources.
“Google has long faced criticism for manipulating search results to censor conservatives. Conservative individuals and organizations have had their pro-Trump content tagged as ‘hate speech,’ or had their content reduced in search results,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who serves on the Judiciary committee.
He went on to cite studies that identified clear bias in Google’s search results.
“PJ Media found that 96 percent of search results for Trump were from liberal media outlets. In fact, not a single right-leaning site appeared on the first page of search results,” Smith explained. “This doesn’t happen by accident, but is baked into the algorithms…Dr. Robert Epstein, a Harvard-trained psychologist, authored a study recently that showed Google’s bias likely swung 2.6 million votes to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Google could well elect the next president with dire implications for our democracy.”
Pichai responded by saying such studies were flawed.
“Some of the studies you mention,” he replied, “we have investigated those… We found issues with the methodology and the sample sizes and so on, but let me step back and say providing users high quality and trusted information is sacrosanct to us.
“It is not possible for an individual employee or groups of employees to manipulate our search results,” Pichai continued, ignoring the fact that the strongly leftist employees at Google create the algorithms. “We have a robust framework, including many steps in the process.”
Undermining Pichai’s claims also were an internal company video, leaked to Breitbart, from the days shortly following the 2016 election that showed widespread dismay on the part of Google employees over Donald Trump’s victory. Co-founder Sergey Brin is heard likening Trump supporters to fascists, in just one example of disregard for those he disagrees with.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who chairs the committee, said he wanted to get to the bottom of what “justifies” filtering results, as opposed to letting computers randomly access information based upon an individual’s search terms.
“Given the revelation that top executives at Google have discussed how the results of the 2016 elections do not comply with Google’s values,” Goodlatte said, “these questions have become all the more important.”
Pichai also denied an obvious, clearly stated effort to turn out Latino votes in 2016. Committee member Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, pointed out emails from Google’s head of multicultural marketing that explained the get-out-the-vote effort.
“We as a company didn’t have any effort to push out votes for any particular demographic, that would be against our principles,” Pichai told Jordan. “We participate in the civic process in a non-partisan way.”
For their part, Democrat members of the committee dismissed allegations of bias.
“I must dispense with the complete illegitimate fantasy dreamed up by some conservatives that Google and other platforms have anti-conservative bias,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, who is set to take over chairmanship of the committee when the majority Democrats assume control of the House in January.
And Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said the Republicans’ inquiries were a waste of everyone’s time.
“If you want positive searches, do positive things,” he said. “If you get bad press, don’t blame Google. Consider blaming yourself.”
The committee would have benefited from an unplanned demonstration of a sample search to show which news organizations arise in Google’s results. They are always heavily represented by organizations such as the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and the legacy broadcast television networks – which Google and Democrats believe are objective. Of course, President Trump calls the majority of them “fake news” and conservatives call them flat-out liberal.
As for the plans that Google has for its “Project Dragonfly” search engine for China, modified to accommodate its communist government, Pichai told lawmakers the company has “no plans” to launch it.
“It’s part of our core mission and principles to try hard to provide users with information,” Pichai said. “We always have evidence, based on every country we have operated in, us reaching out and giving users more information has a very positive impact, and we feel that calling. But right now there are no plans to launch in China. The extent that we ever approach a position like that, I will be very transparent, including with policy-makers here, and engage and consult widely.”
Yet Google has devoted significant resources to its development, more than 100 employees, according to Pichai. He characterized Dragonfly as a project worked on “internally” and not “in China,” and said the company has spent lots of time and energy on other projects that were never launched.
The secrecy surrounding the project, and the concern expressed by company leakers about its viability, convey something more serious. As Breitbart reported, 736 employees have signed a letter that demands Google cancel Dragonfly, which they said “enables state surveillance.”
Before the hearing Pichai also heard from Sen. Marco Rubio, who first raised concerns about the China project in August. In an updated letter dated Monday, the Florida Republican exhorted the CEO to abandon Dragonfly.
“Such plans…risk making Google complicit in human rights abuses in China, including the government’s onerous censorship regime and authoritarian surveillance state that targets its own citizens with the aims of crushing dissent, free expression and any perceived threat to the Chinese Communist Party,” Rubio wrote.
“If Google moves forward with the Dragonfly project as reported, you will most assuredly find yourselves similarly compromised—bedfellows with the Chinese people’s oppressors, rather than with those who are oppressed.”