Google CEO Sundar Pichai battles grueling Congress hearing: Here are the key takeaways

This testimony before the Congress is the Google CEO's first in 2018.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai today answered questions before the US Congress at a time that is critical for the search giant, as it deals with a growing list of ethical debates and controversies across various parts of the world including the US.

The hearing touched on a number of topics as well as accusations that were expected to be addressed — Google's algorithms and who makes them; political bias within the company's search team and others involved in building Google products; Google's 'Project Dragonfly' and its plans in China, if user data collected by parties partnering with Google is shared with them and if Pichai as the head of Google sees the need for a GDPR-like law in the US.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington. Image: Reuters

Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington. Image: Reuters

Majority leader Kevin McCarthy began the hearing by noting a "widening gap of distrust" between technology giants and the people of the US. He also asked whether tech companies are "serving as instruments of freedom or instruments of control" in the US as well as in other countries.

Reading out from a prepared testimony, Pichai said, "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. We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions and we have no shortage of them among our own employees."

How Google's search algorithms work

While claims of conservative bias continued to be a feature throughout the three and a half hour grilling, it was Pichai's explanation on how the site's curious search result algorithm works that was oft-heard.

"We provide search today so any time you type in a keyword, we as Google have gone out and crawled and stored copies of billions of web pages in our index, and we take the keyword, and match it against the pages, and rank them based on over 200 signals," he said.

"These include things like relevance, freshness, popularity, how other people are using it. Based on that, at any given time, we try to rank and find the best results for that query. We then evaluate them with external raters, to make sure that they evaluate it to objective guidelines. That's how we make sure the process is working." he said.

That's not all, the Google CEO also attempted to answer the question of bias by saying, "Last year we served over 3 trillion searches. Every day 15 percent of the searches Google sees, we have never seen them before. This is working at scale and we don't manually intervene on any particular search result."

On developments in China and Project Dragonfly

The other talking point on which we did get an answer from the Google CEO was that on China and the search company's dealings with the Chinese government in particular.

A demonstrator holds up a sign in the doorway as Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies at a House Judiciary Committee on greater transparency. Image: Reuters

A demonstrator holds up a sign in the doorway as Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies at a House Judiciary Committee on greater transparency. Image: Reuters

Pichai, throughout the hearing, denied that the company is planning to launch a search product in China. He said that if the company does plan to launch in China in the future, it will consult with lawmakers.

Replying to representative David Cicilline, the CEO refused to commit to not launching a censored search in China in his tenure as chief executive. He, however, reiterated to the representative from Rhode Island that the company has no current plans to launch in China and called the plans so far "limited efforts internally."

Pichai also acknowledged that the project at one point had "over a hundred" people work on it.

GDPR and the need for a similar law in the US

Addressing GDPR and the question of whether a law along a similar framework was required in the US, Pichai said that there was "some value for companies to have consistent global regulation."

"I'm of the opinion that we're better off with more of an overarching data-protection framework," Pichai mentioned. The CEO also highlighted how Google published its own framework to guide data privacy legislation earlier this year.

Pichai described GDPR as a "well-thought-out" law in another question, adding that there's value for the US in "aligning" with it "where we can."

Pichai also handled questions about the types of data Google can collect on users with its Android operating system. Asked about collecting data like IP addresses and user location, Pichai repeatedly said that people can adjust what Google collects by changing their settings. But he conceded that sometimes product settings and user agreements can be confusing.

"We want to simplify it and I do think we can do better," he said.

This testimony is the Google CEO's first before the Congress in 2018. As per a report by Recode, the CEO declined an invitation to attend a hearing in September that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey attended.

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