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Google CEO grilled by Congress on search engine bias, data collection

Google CEO Sundar Pichai appears before the House Judiciary Committee to be questioned about the internet giant's privacy security and data collection, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Google CEO Sundar Pichai sat before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday to address concerns about data collection, privacy and the internet giant's alleged anti-conservative bias.

Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy of California set the tone for the hearing touting the value of the company while acknowledging the "widening gap of distrust between technology companies and the American people."

On both sides of the aisle, lawmakers questioned Google's extensive data collection and the degree to which the company is protecting that data and allowing users to opt out of handing over their location, search history and other information.

Among Republicans, the distrust stemmed from anecdotal evidence of bias, including claims that Google has manipulating search rankings, filtered conservative content and unfairly removed it from platforms like Youtube.

GOOGLE ALGORITHMS HAVE 'NO NOTION OF POLITICAL SENTIMENT'

"Such actions pose a grave threat to our democratic form of government," Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, argued. Listing incidents of conservative content being "downgraded" in Google searches and pro-Trump content tagged as "hate speech," Smith and other Republicans suggested anti-conservative bias was written into Google's algorithms.

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, claimed Google is picking winners and losers in political discourse" and could end up determining the outcome of elections.

Pichai defended the company and strongly denied any partisan, ideological or political biases in Google's operations. "I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way," the CEO asserted.

"Our algorithms have no notion of political sentiment," Pichai said, offering to explain Google's algorithms to policymakers.

The company's systems were developed "from first principles" with security protections to prevent an individual or small group from manipulating the search function or other features, he continued. These "checks and balances" were built in on the assumption there would be individuals "acting in bad faith."

To the extent Pichai was able to deliver his message, it is not clear whether it was understood by policymakers.

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., threatened government intervention against the tech giant if Pichai was unable to convince members of Congress that it had implemented all appropriate safeguards against bias.

"We do not want to impose burdensome government regulations on your industry," Johnson said. "However, we do believe that we have an affirmative duty to ensure that the engine that processes as much as...90 percent of all internet searches is never used to unfairly censor conservative viewpoints or suppress political views."

A number of conservative members argued Pichai should monitor its employees' political activities after internal emails found a group of employees contemplating ways to block the conservative website Breitbart under the company's hate speech provisions.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., demanded Pichai launch "an investigation into the discourse of your employees on resisting the Trump presidency, resisting the trump agenda and then smothering some of the conservatives outlets that seek to amplify that content."

California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, who represents Santa Clara County where Google is headquartered, said it is "not surprising" that technology engineers in a predominantly liberal district would express anti-Trump political views.

The top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee mocked Republicans' censorship concerns as "completely illegitimate" and a "rightwing conspiracy theory." Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., took the argument further and said Google has the same right as conservative news outlets to curate content.

"Even if Google were deliberately discriminating," he stated, "that would be its right as a private company to do so, not to be questioned by the government."

Free speech standards typically do not apply to private companies, but the debate over alleged censorship by companies like Youtube, Facebook and Twitter have raised questions about whether the most widely used social media platforms should be held to First Amendment standards.

Conservative conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and Roger Stone, a former associate of President Donald Trump, made a dramatic appearance at the Tuesday hearing and attempted to confront Pichai about Google's alleged "censorship."

Jones was threatened with arrest Tuesday morning after shouting "Google is evil" at Pichai as he walked to the congressional hearing room. Jones was banned from Youtube earlier this year for violating community standards and his content was also removed by Apple and Facebook. Stone's videos have also been removed by Youtube for violating the platform policies.

DATA COLLECTION THAT WOULD 'MAKE THE NSA BLUSH'

Google is a ubiquitous presence for most internet users. There are more than 2 billion Android users worldwide, 1.8 billion monthly active Youtube users and Google Chrome surpassed all other internet browsers in popularity.

"It is almost impossible to avoid Google altogether," Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., noted, adding the company's data collection capacity "would even make the NSA blush."

Multiple disturbing reports have emerged this year about Google's data collection practices. The Associated Press recently revealed how Android users were still being tracked even after pausing Google's "Location History" feature. The Wall Street Journal reported that Google scanned the inboxes of Gmail users to improve targeted advertising. Google reportedly ended the practice.

Pichai attempted to reassure lawmakers and the public that Google is a responsible steward of the data it gathers, even amid recent headlines about the Google Plus security failure, which went unreported by the company.

The reassurances did not prevent the hearing from turning hostile at times as members of Congress struggled to understand how much Google knows.

Holding up his Apple iPhone, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, demanded Pichai tell him if Google was able to determine his exact position if he moved from one side of the hearing room to another.

Pichai said that Google does not track a users location "by default," but the congressman may have other services and applications that access his location. He tried to explain that he couldn't answer the question without more details.

Demanding it was a "yes or no" question, Poe shouted, "You make $100 million a year. You ought to be able to answer that question."

Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., noted a negative perception by the public about the amount of data being collected, stored and used by Google. "Perception is reality," he stated before launching into a series of questions about what information Google collects.

Depending on a user's privacy settings and the service being provided, Pichai acknowledged that Google collects personal identifiers, like name, age, address, device identifiers, like IP addresses, location information like GPS signals, WiFi and Blue Tooth beacons, voice conversations if Google Voice is activated and the contents of emails and Google Docs.

At the same time, Google's privacy policies have not been consistent. The company has altered its privacy policies dozens of times since its launch and eight times since January 2016.

Pichai touted Google's recent addition of a Privacy Checkup where users are sent reminders to update their privacy settings. In the last 28 days, 160 million users went updated their privacy settings. The feature walks users through different settings to limit the information Google collects, stores and uses to curate advertisements.

"For any service we provide our users, we go to great length to protect their privacy and give them transparency, choice and control," Pichai said.

PICHAI SUPPORTS DATA PRIVACY LAW, SAYS NO SEARCH ENGINE FOR CHINA

While users can technically change their privacy settings and opt out of some data collection, lawmakers have started to question whether opting out should be the default privacy setting.

In recent months, more U.S. lawmakers are looking at the European Union as a possible model for regulating how large tech companies collect and store user data. The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) took effect earlier this year and is the most robust data privacy protections in the world.

Under GDPR users must actively give their consent on matters of data collection, for example, checking opt-in boxes. In the United States, most tech companies assume user consent and users must actively opt out.

Asked about an American version of the GDPR privacy regulations, Pichai stated, "I’m of the opinion that we’re better off with more of an overarching data-protection framework."

Pichai described the European privacy law as "well-thought-out" and told members of Congress that there is value in having uniform privacy standards across different countries.

The company's international operations also came up in a series of questions about Google developing a search engine for China called Dragonfly. Lawmakers, technologists and even Google employees have condemned the prospect of Dragonfly, which they say will be used to enhance Chinese government surveillance and violate human rights.

Contrary to reports, Pichai said the company has no current plans to launch Dragonfly. "Our core mission is to provide users access to information and getting access to information is an important human right," he said. "Right now there are no plans to launch search in China."

Google pulled out of the Chinese market in 2010 after the government attempted to use hacked Google data to crack down on dissidents. China also censored citizens' access to Google's main search engine.

Despite human rights concerns, Google's parent company, Alphabet, has reportedly been looking for ways to get back into China's consumer market and access the world's largest number of smartphone users.

Pichai said if the company decides to return to China it will be "transparent" and discuss the decision with U.S. lawmakers.

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