WASHINGTON — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy kicked off a congressional grilling of Google CEO Sundar Pichai by noting a “widening gap of distrust” between tech companies and the American people.
McCarthy, a California Republican, asked whether tech companies are “serving as instruments of freedom or instruments of control” in the U.S. and beyond.
Pichai is facing the Republican-majority House Judiciary Committee before Democrats take control of the House in January. Lawmakers are asking him about alleged bias in the company’s search results, as well as its reported plans to launch a censored search engine in China.
Pichai’s appearance comes after he angered members of a Senate panel in September by declining their invitation to testify about foreign governments’ manipulation of online services to sway U.S. elections. Pichai’s no-show at that hearing was marked by an empty chair for Google alongside the Facebook and Twitter executives who did appear.
Pichai went to Washington later in September to mend fences, meeting with some two dozen Republicans and indicating he also planned to meet with Democrats. He took part last week in a White House meeting with other tech industry executives that focused mainly on getting government and businesses working more closely on accelerating emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence.
In October, Google announced it was shutting down its long-shunned Plus social network following its disclosure of a flaw discovered in March that could have exposed some personal information of as many as 500,000 people. The company deliberately avoided disclosing the privacy lapse at the time, in part to avoid drawing regulators’ scrutiny and damaging its reputation, according to a Wall Street Journal report citing anonymous individuals and documents.
Lawmakers want Google to explain its failure to reveal the breach.
Democratic lawmakers, angry about Russian misinformation online during the 2016 campaign and concerned about the expanding influence of tech’s biggest companies, are expected to target the industry in the next Congress. Some have already raised concerns about potential antitrust and privacy violations, showing more willingness than Republicans to regulate an industry viewed as an engine of economic growth.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, have warned that Amazon and other tech giants aren’t paying fair wages. Two other Democrats, Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, have called for privacy and online ad legislation, saying big tech companies can’t be trusted to regulate themselves.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, said, “We need to restore competition and protect our rights online.” He added: “The promise of an open internet is fundamentally threatened by the ability of a few powerful gatekeepers to bully competitors, cripple innovation and exploit consumers. This must be a top priority going forward.”
The concerns are aimed broadly across the tech industry. On Tuesday, however, they will focus on Google, as Pichai will be alone in testifying before the House Judiciary Committee. Over the past year, Google has avoided the intense scrutiny heaped upon internet rivals, even as it grappled with questions about privacy and misinformation on services like YouTube. But the company upset lawmakers when it decided not to send a top executive to testify alongside leaders of Facebook and Twitter at a hearing a few months ago. Lawmakers left an empty seat for Google with a name tag for Larry Page, chief executive of Alphabet, Google’s parent company.
To tamp down criticism, Pichai traveled to Washington in September, meeting with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Pichai agreed at the time to testify later in the year.
The hearing, “Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and Its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices,” is expected to cover a wide array of topics, led by Republican allegations of anti-conservative biases in how search results are surfaced. A Google spokesman declined to comment about the hearing.
Republicans have accused Google, Twitter and Facebook of secretly placing conservative voices lower in newsfeed and search rankings. President Donald Trump and his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, have joined the chorus of critics, saying that the liberal views of Silicon Valley leaders and employees have led them to program their services to limit conservative voices.
“Recent reports suggest Google might not be wielding its vast power impartially,” said Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House Republican leader, who called on Pichai to meet with members during his September visit. “Its business practices may have been affected by political bias.”
Some Democrats warned that Republicans could focus too much on the accusations of anti-conservative bias, arguing that it would distract from more pressing issues like misinformation and the handling of user data.
“The public has voiced grave concerns about privacy, discrimination, lack of diversity and incivility online,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Unfortunately, House Republicans are instead choosing to use their final days in the majority to peddle conspiracy theories about conservative bias.”
The prospect of legislation to rein in tech remains slim, because Republicans still control the Senate and have shown no signs of wanting to add regulations. But the harsh criticism from Democrats has put the companies in a defensive crouch.
“The internet companies’ blue wall of protection in Washington seems to be crumbling,” said Paul Gallant, an analyst at the research firm Cowen & Co. “Democrats now see political gain in taking on tech.”
On Thursday, Pichai participated in a White House business round table that included Microsoft’s chief executive, Satya Nadella; Oracle’s co-chief executive, Safra Catz; Qualcomm’s chief executive, Steve Mollenkopf; and others. While Trump made a brief appearance, his daughter and special adviser, Ivanka Trump, represented the White House. She was joined by some administration tech advisers. The topics of discussion included artificial intelligence, quantum computing and next-generation 5G wireless networks.
At the hearing, Pichai is likely to get questions about Google’s search results, which company executives have repeatedly denied are altered for political purposes. He will probably also get questions about privacy and how the company handles cases of sexual harassment. Last month, more than 20,000 employees around the world walked out in protest of the company’s handling of sexual harassment and discrimination claims. The company gave into one of the protest organizers’ demands to end the practice of forced arbitration for employees bringing sexual harassment claims.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers are also expected to press him on Google’s possible plans for re-entering China, a market the company left in 2010 over concerns about censorship and government hacking. Google has more recently been working on a search engine that adheres to the Chinese government’s censorship requirements. The project, code-named Dragonfly, has upset employees who feel Google would be playing a part in silencing dissidents and spreading government propaganda. Pichai has said that Google is merely investigating the idea and that it has not made a decision to move forward with a search product for China.
Pichai has kept a relatively low profile since becoming Google’s chief in 2015. A soft-spoken engineer who grew up in Chennai, India, he worked his way up the ranks at the company and is seen as more at home dealing with products and technology than with policy and politics. But like other technology chief executives facing questions about the societal impact of their products and the policies of their companies, Pichai is being forced to take a more active role in Washington.
Pichai’s political donations also mirror Google’s attempts to foster better relationships with Republicans. After donating mostly to Democratic candidates since 2008, Pichai, who is one of the highest-paid executives in Silicon Valley, adopted a more bipartisan approach to his donations. In 2017, Pichai donated nearly $34,000 to both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.