Google CEO Grilled by Congress on Privacy, Bias

Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies before the House Judiciary Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on Dec. 11, 2018. (Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies before the House Judiciary Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on Dec. 11, 2018. (Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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Google chief executive Sundar Pichai appeared on Capitol Hill Wednesday where he faced questions from lawmakers on a number of issues, including data privacy and allegations from Republicans that the search engine giant harbors a bias against conservative users.

The hearing, Pichai’s first before Congress, came just a few months after a different attempt to get him to Capitol Hill turned so contentious that a Senate committee featured an empty chair in his place at a hearing.

In his opening remarks Wednesday, Pichai stressed to members of the House Judiciary Committee that the company operates in a nonpartisan fashion, a point he reiterated a number of times throughout the hearing.

“I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way,” Pichai said. “To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests.”

Republican lawmakers, however, appeared unconvinced.

In one case, Republican Rep. Lamar Smith cited a debunked study to claim Google (GOOGL) provides biased results for searches about President Donald Trump. Smith accused Google of having a liberal bias “programmed into the company’s culture.”

Pichai also answered questions on user privacy. Lawmakers asked him about how much data Google collects from its users, especially on its Android operating system.

Pichai said that Google offers its users tools to access how much information it is allowing Google and applications on the Android operating system to collect on them. Pichai also stressed that different applications collect different types of data, noting that a fitness application would collect detailed information on a users’ movements, whereas other applications would not.

During the hearing, a protester opened the doors to the room and briefly held up a sign protesting a project Google reportedly has underway to build a search product for use in China. Such a product would be forced to comply with Beijing’s government censorship regulations and has spurred concerns from human rights advocates.

Pichai told the committee that Google currently has “no plans” to launch a search product in China.

However, when pressed by Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, Pichai conceded that there has been an “internal effort” at Google around a potential product for China. Pichai said the effort was being led by the company’s search team. He characterized it as a “limited effort.”

When asked whether Pichai would rule out “launching a tool for surveillance and censorship in China” while he is CEO, Pichai declined to answer with a yes or no.

“One of the things that’s important to us as a company — we have a stated mission of providing users with information,” Pichai said. “I have a commitment, but as I’ve said earlier on this we’ll be very thoughtful and we’ll engage widely as we make progress.”

Chaired by Republican Bob Goodlatte, the House Judiciary Committee has held hearings throughout the year focused on whether tech giants are biased.

Twitter (TWTR) CEO Jack Dorsey was the last major tech figure to make an appearance before the committee, doing so at a hearing in September.

Google had previously declined to make Pichai available for a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, even though Dorsey and Facebook (FB) COO Sheryl Sandberg did attend, leading to the empty chair in Pichai’s place.

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