Google CEO Sundar Pichai's US Congressional hearing didn't tell us anything concrete

As far as the outcome of the entire hearing goes, Pichai held his ground well while getting caught off-guard only by a few questions


Google CEO Sundar Pichai was grilled in a three-hour-plus hearing by US Congressmen over allegations of Google suppressing conservative perspectives, discussions of Google's plans to re-enter the Chinese market, Google's mass collection of user data and data filtering policies and more.

This is the first time that Pichai appeared before the US Congress, after refusing to participate in a similar hearing with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, back in September this year. As far as the outcome of the entire process goes, Pichai held his ground well, getting caught off-guard by some questions, explaining simple technicalities to some Congressmen, reiterating that Google had no plans to launch a search engine in China at the moment (not ruling out future plans) and making promises to do better and follow up on unanswered questions.

Google CEO Sundar Pichais US Congressional hearing didnt tell us anything concrete

Google CEO Sundar Pichai published the charter after weeks of protest from employees forced the company to reconsider its stance on AI. Image: Reuters

If that sounds familiar to the hearings we have heard in the past with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and later from Dorsey and Sandberg, that's because it was indeed like that. There was nothing concrete that emerged from these hearings.

Lack of technical knowledge and political squabbles

While the Republican Congressmen were keen on rubbing in the fact that Google was suppressing conservative content, some were found asking pointless questions which showed their lack of technical knowledge on many Google-related matters. Sample this:

And this one...

In addition to this, Rep. King also asked that the people working behind Google's search algorithms be made public and that their social media profiles should be scanned. In case that didn't solve the issue of bias, then Google should make public its algorithms.

Rep. Lamar Smith had a question on what Google did to reprimand individuals or groups of employees who were manipulating search results, to which Pichai responded that it wasn't possible for individual employees to do that. Rep. Smith found that hard to believe.

Democratic Congresswoman Rep. Zoe Lofgren asked Pichai to walk her through the process of Google Search as she found it strange that an image search for the term 'idiot' returned US President Donald Trump's image. "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," Pichai responded.

To which Zogfren responded, "So it's not some little man sitting behind the curtain figuring out what we're going to show the user."

Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies at a House Judiciary Committee hearing “examining Google and its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Young - RC1FD4A78C80

Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies at a House Judiciary Committee hearing examining Google and its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Young - RC1FD4A78C80

Another Democrat also took the opportunity to make a statement, rather than ask Pichai any relevant question. Rep. Ted Lieu spoke about doing a Google Search for a two Republican Congressmen and how the results he got were completely different — positive for one, negative for the other. Lieu then said, "If you are getting bad press articles and bad search results, don’t blame Google or Facebook or Twitter. Consider blaming yourself."

This line of questioning not only highlighted a lack of technical know-how on how Google works but also highlighted a sort of Republican-Democrat bickering during the hearing.  It also wasted a lot of time that could have been used to ask more revealing and relevant questions.

Repetitive questions, repetitive answers

At so many instances during the hearing, Pichai was found to be repeating answers because the questions that were asked were repetitive. Pichai, on his part, also dodged a lot of questions, assuring the Congressmen that his team would get back promptly with the right response.

For instance, on the topic of political bias in search results, a lot of the Republican Congressmen seemed more interested in pointing fingers and giving examples of results they got when they entered certain search terms (something that is unique to the user and changes depending on location and time). Also, no proof was provided by any of the Congressmen when they spoke about bias in search results, which is difficult to prove as the search algorithms are Google's secret formula.

One Congressman, Rep. Steve Cohen, wanted to know why his MSNBC appearance wasn't showing up on Google search over other news sites.

Pichai kept assuring that there was no political bias in the search results. "To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests," said Pichai.

No plans to enter China, for now

On the topic of re-entering the China market, Pichai kept saying that there were no plans at the moment. Pichai didn't say that there would be no such plans in the future either. In fact, in an interview with The Washington Post following the hearing, Pichai stated that there were internal efforts to develop products for the Chinese market, but no further details were given.

Rep. Tim Marino asked Pichai if he were to consider offering service in China, what information would Google share with the Chinese concerning other users or other countries?

To this Pichai responded, "When we look to operate in a country, we would look at what the conditions are to operate. There are times in the past, we have debated the conditions to operate and we explore a wide range of possibilities. Currently, there's an effort only internally, we are not doing this in China. But I would be happy to consult back and be transparent in case we plan something there." So Google clearly has some efforts in that direction, though not explicitly to launch Search in China.

The questions that mattered

Democratic Congressman Rep. David Cicilline asked Pichai point blank, "Who at Google is leading Project Dragonfly? Will you, Mr Pichai, rule out launching a tool for surveillance and censorship in China while you’re CEO of Google?"

Pichai's response was basically a non-response to any of those questions.

Another instance when Pichai was caught off-guard and didn't have a strong response was when Rep. Jim Jordan questioned him on an email sent by Google's head of multicultural marketing, Eliana Murillo, congratulating Google's efforts to increase Latino voter turnout in key states in 2016.

According to the leaked email, Google had congratulated the efforts and it ended with, "We pushed to get out the Latino vote with our features in key states, we supported partners like Voto Latino to pay for rides to the polls in key states." Jordan asked, "By We do you mean Google?" Here's the complete exchange:

The response from Pichai didn't seem too convincing and it looked like he was caught off-guard. After Pichai said that he would be happy to follow up on the question, Jordan responded that he did not need a follow-up, but a response in front of the committee.

Sadly, such important moments, were rare indeed.

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