(Bloomberg)—Google CEO Sundar Pichai kicked off his first appearance before Congress Tuesday refuting claims of bias, explaining the company’s privacy approach and stressing its American roots.
As the hearing began, the heads of both political parties led with questions about Google’s data collection. Republican Bob Goodlatte asked how much personal information Google absorbs via its Android mobile software.
Pichai stressed that users opt in to certain data-tracking features, giving the example of fitness apps that measure steps. However, the CEO did not directly respond to a question about whether Android device users fully understand the terms of the operating system. “Beyond the terms of service, we actually offer, we remind users to do a privacy check up,” he said. “And we make it very obvious.”
Republican Lamar Smith asked whether Google’s search engine is biased against conservatives, citing studies. Pichai refuted those findings and said no employees have the ability to skew search results. “There are always studies which can show one set of data and arrive at a conclusion,” Pichai said. “But we have looked at results on our top news category. We find that we have a wide variety of sources.”
Pichai’s testimony was overshadowed by the memory of his empty chair from a September hearing he skipped. It caps a year filled with setbacks and stumbles that chilled relations between tech giants and Capitol Hill.
“It was necessary to convene this hearing because of the widening gap of distrust between technology companies and the American people,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, citing China, antitrust and anti-conservative bias as concerns.
McCarthy, a California Republican once viewed as close to tech, has been a prime mover behind the hearing and accusations of political bias. Democrats, who will take over the committee in 2019, have also previously pushed Silicon Valley officials on concerns about their size, foreign countries’ use of tech platforms to try to influence elections and a lack of workforce diversity.
The much-watched hearing got off to a boisterous start with Donald Trump associate Roger Stone in the room along with far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who shouted at Pichai about China as the CEO entered the hearing room. “You bet on the wrong country, Sundar!” Jones said, calling the company “absolutely the most evil corporation on Earth.”
The Infowars personality, who has accused tech platforms of censoring him, previously appeared outside a September hearing with Twitter Inc. CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, which resulted in his ban from Twitter for abusive behavior.
Concerns about Google’s plans to re-enter China, codenamed “Dragonfly,” have upset some employees of company and members of Congress. Pichai has insisted the initiative is an experiment.
“In order to protect free speech we need to have companies that are promoting that and are negotiating and holding out for that in countries like China,” Goodlatte, the panel’s Republican chairman, said in a Monday interview with Fox Business.
Politicians have already demanded to know why Google seems willing to censor search results at the behest of Chinese Community Party but has pulled back from two contracts with the U.S. military.
“Right now, we have no plans to launch in China,” Pichai said on Tuesday. “We don’t have a search product there. Our core mission is to provide information to users. Getting access to information is an important human right.”
Google stopped providing its search engine in China in 2008 after the government demanded results be censored. But the world’s largest internet market is attractive to any global company, and a return could signal Google is prioritizing its business over human rights.
In several exchanges, Pichai described Dragonfly as an “internal effort” and said the number of employees working on it was “limited.” However, he declined to answer direct questions on whether Google staff have stopped working on the project or if he would commit to not launch a product that could be used as a surveillance tool by China.
“As an American company, we cherish the values and freedoms that have allowed us to grow and serve so many users,” Pichai said in opening remarks released by the committee on Monday. “I am proud to say we do work, and we will continue to work, with the government to keep our country safe and secure.”
He also reiterated Google’s support for a national privacy law, which could gain momentum next year, in part because diverse business groups have backed plans that would preempt California’s stringent new privacy law. Such a law would represent yet more regulation of the tech sector, after Google lost a battle earlier in the year to stop Congress from increasing internet platforms’ liability for online sex trafficking.
Pichai isn’t the first tech titan to undergo a grilling on Capital Hill. Two of his fellow CEO’s, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook Inc. and Twitter’s Dorsey already endured hours of often-hostile testimony even as trade tensions, European antitrust probes and angry tweets from President Donald Trump accusing the social media companies of silencing conservatives rattled markets.
The industry has also been criticized for spreading misinformation and extreme content online, while privacy breaches and other mishaps have shaken the public’s faith in its ability to keep customer data safe and use it wisely.
“We’re long past that high water mark of Silicon Valley’s belief that they can solve these problems on their own or ignore the public pressure,’’ said Danny O’Brien, international director with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group.