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Google CEO Sundar Pichai says yes to privacy laws, no to political bias and maybe to China

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai arrives to testify at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on Tuesday.
(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai, in his long-awaited appearance on Capitol Hill, told lawmakers Tuesday that his company’s search engine had no bias against conservatives. He also said the tech giant had no current plans to introduce a censored search engine in China, but he wouldn’t rule out launching a controversial search engine for that market.

Pichai was asked to testify before the House Judiciary Committee to discuss data privacy and purported political bias in the company’s search results. But over the course of 3½ hours, lawmakers touched on a wide range of issues, including the danger of white supremacist videos on the company’s YouTube platform as well as its reported plans to create a customized search engine for China — one intentionally biased, and censored, to Communist Party specifications.

Tuesday’s hearing was the latest in a series called by House Republicans to investigate whether Google, Facebook and Twitter suppress conservative voices online.

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Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) demanded Pichai appear before the House committee after a video released on right-wing website Breitbart in September appeared to show Google executives expressing dismay about Trump’s 2016 election victory, partly over concern that his immigration policy could negatively affect their many foreign-born workers.

McCarthy opened Tuesday’s hearing with a statement highlighting “one fundamental question: Are America’s technology companies serving as instruments of freedom or instruments of control?”

A partisan divide quickly emerged. Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the ranking Democrat on the panel, dismissed the fears of anti-conservative bias as “fact-free propaganda” and a “right-wing conspiracy theory.” Even if Google were politically biased, Nadler said, it would be within its rights as a private company. He cited the example of right-leaning media companies such as Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting.

“This question might be relevant if Republican members wanted to bring back the fairness doctrine and expand its scope to social media companies,” Nadler added, referring to the law, abolished by President Reagan’s administration, that mandated radio and television stations devote airtime to controversial public issues and ensure that coverage fairly represented opposing views. “I doubt we will see any interest in doing so.”

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Instead, Nadler urged his colleagues to focus on questions of data privacy, Russian influence on U.S. elections, the China search engine project and the ease with which “those seeking to stoke racial and ethnic hatred” spread their message on online platforms such as YouTube.

Pichai’s appearance in Washington came after a no-show on Capitol Hill in September, when he and Larry Page, CEO of parent company Alphabet Inc., declined to appear at a Senate Intelligence Committee panel. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, whose channel was removed from YouTube this year, attended Tuesday’s hearing with Trump campaign advisor Roger Stone, who has been suspended from Twitter in the past for his expletive-laden rants at CNN anchors. A protester dressed as the Monopoly man (formally known as Rich Uncle Pennybags), who rose to viral prominence after appearing at a 2017 Senate hearing on the Equifax data breach, was also in attendance.

Pichai’s opening testimony began with a paean to information and technology as forces for good, recalling growing up in India and the thrill of his family’s first television set. He also underlined Google’s sweeping ambition — “to provide users with access to the world’s information” — making sure to mention the company’s “American roots” and multibillion-dollar contributions to the U.S. economy.

Then he got to the core issues, saying that Google cares about privacy and supports federal privacy legislation.

The company revealed Monday that a data vulnerability left personal information of more than 52 million users of its Google+ social network exposed to potential theft. In a statement, Google said there was no evidence the vulnerability was exploited.

California passed privacy regulations in June that are set to go into effect in 2020. Under those rules, Californians have the right to know what personal information companies are collecting and with whom the companies are sharing that information. Google is proposing federal legislation — which fellow data brokers such as Facebook, AT&T and Amazon are also lobbying for in Washington — that would nullify California’s regulations and replace them with weaker consumer protections.

Still, when Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) asked Pichai whether the European Union’s even stricter data and privacy regulations — the General Data Protection Regulation, known as GDPR — were “a good framework,” Pichai seemed cautiously positive.

“I think it’s a well-thought-out … piece of legislation,” Pichai said. “I do think there’s some value for companies to have consistent global regulations. I think it’s also important for users as they navigate services globally. So I do see value in aligning where we can.”

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On the question of bias, Pichai cited Google’s workforce — including veterans, civil libertarians, parents and immigrants — as proof of its ideological diversity. “I lead this company without political bias,” he said, “and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way.”

The allegation that Google search results were politically biased against the right began on the self-professed right-wing blog PJ Media. A writer searched for “Trump” in Google’s News section and sorted the first 100 results by source, using a media-bias chart that placed libertarian website Reason.com in the center of the spectrum and, in a bit of circular logic, Google off to the left. Five of the articles were from Fox News or the Wall Street Journal, with the rest coming from other mainstream news sources.

The resulting story, “96 Percent of Google Search Results for ‘Trump’ News Are From Liberal Media Outlets,” was mentioned on Fox News. President Trump included the number in a tweet, adding that “Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good.”

As each member of the House committee got his or her five minutes with Pichai, the questions followed a partisan pattern.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) asked whether any Google employee had been sanctioned for manipulating search results to disfavor conservatives, citing the PJ Media article.

“It’s not possible for an individual employee or groups of employees to manipulate search results,” Pichai replied, saying that the search ranking process is automatic and constantly changing in reaction to the changing internet.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) asked Pichai whether reports that Google was creating a censored search engine for the Chinese market were true.

“We have undertaken internal efforts” to create a Chinese search product, Pichai said, but “currently we are not in discussions around launching a search product in China.” There are no current plans for a launch, but at one point more than 100 employees were working on the project, he said.

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When Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) pressed, asking if Pichai would “rule out launching a tool for censorship in China” while serving as Google’s CEO, Pichai demurred.

“We have a stated mission of providing users with information,” Pichai said. “We think it’s in our duty to explore possibilities, to give users access to information.” That echoed comments he made at a conference in October, where he defended the concept of a Chinese search product, arguing that a censored platform that still lets people search for accurate information on medical treatment, for example, is in line with Google’s mission.

Google’s plans for expansion in the Chinese market, code named Project Dragonfly, were first reported by the Intercept this year.

Before the hearing, human rights advocates and more than 700 Google employees signed letters urging the company to drop any plans for a Chinese search product.

Alphabet shares stayed above Monday’s closing price nearly all day. They ended Tuesday up 0.8% at $1,061.65.

sam.dean@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @samaugustdean


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