Congress ought to dig in on Google’s China and information points, not simply bias

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai is ready to testify earlier than Congress this week.


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At his first congressional listening to, Google CEO Sundar Pichai will probably get a grilling from lawmakers.

The underlying query about Tuesday’s listening to is whether or not House Judiciary Committee members will use their time to truly ask about a number of the greatest points — like information privateness, China and censorship — that Google faces.

When the committee introduced the listening to, the difficulty that bought high billing was whether or not the world’s greatest search engine and its YouTube video service have a bias in opposition to conservatives. That is sensible, provided that Republicans management the House of Representatives.

“The technology behind online services like social media and Internet search engines can also be used to suppress particular viewpoints and manipulate public opinion,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, stated in a press release.

But devoting an enormous chunk of the listening to to discussing bias would can be a mistake, trade watchers say. Google is going through actual challenges. Hearing immediately from its CEO may very well be illuminating if lawmakers use their time properly. After all, there’s tons for them to debate.

There’s the secretive Project Dragonfly, which is able to reportedly deliver a censored search engine to China and which has prompted worker protests and resignations. There’s the controversy over information assortment, after stories that Google tracked folks’s location even after they’d turned off location-sharing on their telephones. And there are safety points, like a bug that left a whole lot of hundreds of individuals’s private info uncovered on the Google+ social community.

“There are bigger fish to fry,” stated Bob O’Donnell, head analyst at Technalysis Research. “If the focus is mostly on conservative bias, that becomes a highly political and not necessarily productive conversation.”

That’s as a result of a number of the accusations already hurled at Google over conservative bias have been dispelled.


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In August, President Donald Trump accused Google of political bias and having a liberal bent. He tweeted that Google’s search results are “rigged,” saying the company is “suppressing voices of Conservatives.” He also tweeted a video claiming Google promoted former President Barack Obama’s State of the Union addresses every January but not his. Trump added the hashtag #StopTheBias.

Except Trump got it wrong. Google rejected his claim, noting that its home page did promote the president’s address in January. The company also said it didn’t promote either Trump’s or Obama’s address from their first years in office because those speeches aren’t technically considered State of the Union addresses. 

A screenshot from the Internet Archive, which keeps a record of what appears on web domains, backed up Google.

Still, that doesn’t mean the question of anticonservative bias shouldn’t be part of the conversation. Last year, after the Trump administration launched its controversial travel ban involving seven Muslim-majority countries, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google employees discussed tweaking search results to show users how they could contribute to pro-immigration causes.

And two days after the 2016 election, Google’s leadership expressed dismay over Trump’s victory, according to a video of a companywide meeting leaked to Breitbart in September.

“Let’s face it, most people here are pretty upset and pretty sad because of the election,” Google co-founder Sergey Brin says in the video. “As an immigrant and a refugee, I find this election deeply offensive, and I’m sure many of you do too.”

Pichai, who skipped out on a high-profile hearing in September with Facebook and Twitter, will likely face questions about what’s perceived to be a liberal culture at the search giant.

China and data questions

But if lawmakers shouldn’t spend all their time asking about issues of bias, what should they discuss?

One of the big things is data collection, said David Eaves, a public policy lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “The thing I would want Congress to be focused on is, are these companies using data they collect to shut down competitors?” he said. “Could the advertising profiles they are building over time, in the wrong hands, pose a threat to social norms or values we think are critical to western democracy?”

Eaves doesn’t necessarily know what that threat might look like, or if it will arise, but he says we should think hard about what governance should be about when it comes to a tech and digital economy. “We’ve never lived in a world where so much data is collected,” he said.

Google, which runs eight services that have more than 1 billion users each, including YouTube, Gmail, Google maps and search, has been in hot water over the last few months because of its data collection policies. The search giant was criticized after reports surfaced that employees at third-party email apps could read our emails if we integrated those apps with our Gmail account. Google was hammered again in August, when the Associated Press revealed the company was tracking users’ locations even after they’d turned off their phones’ location history setting.

In October, Google announced it was shutting down its Google+ social network after the company found and fixed a security flaw in March that might’ve exposed the personal data of 500,000 Google+ users. But Google remained silent about the problem for months and came clean only after a report appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

Lawmakers should also ask about Project Dragonfly, Google’s effort to re-enter the Chinese search engine market. In 2010 when the company initially retreated from the country, Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union, cited the “totalitarianism” of Chinese policies. The new search product would reportedly blacklist certain terms the Chinese government found unfavorable, as well as tie search queries to users’ phone numbers, allowing the government to more easily track searches.

Since the project was revealed in August, Pichai has repeatedly said it’s only “exploratory.” But investigative reports have said Google had plans to launch next year.

Congress will likely want to know more.

“Do you want American companies contributing to censorship in foreign countries?” O’Donnell said. “Those are massive philosophical and political questions.” 

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