UNDER OATH

What you should know about Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s hearing before US Congress

Swear to tell the truth—and do no evil.
Swear to tell the truth—and do no evil.
Image: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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Google CEO Sundar Pichai is the latest Silicon Valley leader to be grilled by US Congress this year.

Pichai and Alphabet CEO Larry Page were no-shows at hearings in September with the Senate Intel Committee that included Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. But today (Dec. 11), Pichai spent more than three hours fielding questions under oath from the US House Judiciary Committee, on wide-ranging issues including how the company collects data on its users, biases in its algorithms, and its efforts to expand into China.

Here’s what we learned from the Google CEO, who has led Alphabet-owned company since 2015.

Data collection

Location tracking and other forms of passive data collection were fresh on the minds of the representatives during today’s hearing, following a recently published New York Times investigation (paywall) into companies that use apps to track users’ precise location history through their smartphones. Pichai was asked about the kinds of information that apps share with Google’s Android operating system, whether Google can track people when their location settings are turned off, or when the device is not connected to a wireless or internet signal, among other questions.

There were few easy answers, given that Pichai said the information Google collects depends on each user’s device, apps, and settings. But he did say that, even with location settings turned off, a phone’s IP address may still have some location data, which allows Google know your local language based on where you are, for example. He also said the company could collect information on users’ devices through GPS signals, wifi connections, and bluetooth beacons in some situations, as well as on users who don’t have Google accounts but visit a webpage where Google ads are served. 

Bias

Lawmakers were also concerned about about biases that may be introduced, consciously or otherwise, into Google’s algorithms, specifically search. Republicans asked about Google censoring conservative viewpoints, while Democrats noted that conservative outlets like The Daily Caller and Breitbart were appearing prominently in their own search results. “We get concerns on both sides of the aisle,” Pichai said.

He said Google’s algorithms and features are built to be politically neutral, and that Google search results reflect what is being said on the internet about a given topic at a given time. But the point stood that the parameters of those algorithms are designed by people, and people are biased. Pichai said a team of more than 1,000 people work on Google’s search engine, and that any changes to the algorithms require multiple steps including review by a committee.

China

China was also a hot topic during the hearing, in light of Google’s no-longer-secret plans to develop a search engine in the country. Pichai reaffirmed that Google developed a prototype of what search could look like if it were to be launched in a country like China, where the government censors information on the internet, but that there are no plans to launch search in China at this time. He said the project was underway for quite a while, and had more than 100 people working on it at its peak. He also said the company doesn’t have any special agreements on user data with the Chinese government.

YouTube

“We are not a social-networking company,” Pichai said, in response to a question about how the company was responding to threats from Russian actors who sought to stir up racial tensions during the 2016 US presidential election. “We typically aren’t connecting groups of people.”

It seems the Google CEO temporarily forgot about YouTube, where 1.9 billion users log into each month to post, watch, share, and comment on videos. YouTube wasn’t talked about as frequently during the hearing as other Google products like search or Android, but lawmakers did raise questions about the platform’s content policies, the algorithms that fuel YouTube’s recommendations, and some of the disturbing trends that have proliferated on the platform. Jamie Raskin from Maryland called out a conspiracy theory on the platform, called “frazzledrip,” which is similar to the disproven Pizzagate conspiracy theory and includes videos that suggest politicians, celebrities, and other public figures, such as Hillary Clinton, have assaulted children and drank the blood of their victims.

Pichai said his colleagues only recently made him aware of that particular video trope, but that he agrees the company could do more. “We do grapple with difficult issues,” Pichai said, adding that YouTube has to evaluate each video to see whether it violates the company’s community guidelines before taking it down, a process done through automation and manual review. More than 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, Pichai said.