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Congress whiffed in grilling Google CEO about China's Dragonfly project

Caught up in partisan bickering, Congress didn't dig into the big issues.

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai answered a lot of questions about anti-conservative bias. 

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Toward the end of the three-and-a-half hour congressional hearing with Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Tuesday, Rep. Ted Lieu delivered a sharp rebuke of the entire reason for the session.

"This is now the fourth hearing in a series of ridiculous hearings on the free speech of internet companies," the California Democrat said. "A significant portion of this hearing was a waste of time."

Lieu was referring to other sessions with executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google since the 2016 US election, in which big tech companies have been hauled before Congress to defend themselves against allegations of political bias. The last such hearings took place in September with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

While Google has sent lower-tier executives to plead its case in the past -- including Chief Privacy Officer Keith Enright and YouTube Director of Public Policy Juniper Downs -- this marked the first time Google's boss appeared before legislators.

Google wasn't intentionally filtering out information to suit any political agenda, Lieu argued, and there were more pressing issues at hand for one of the world's most powerful companies. Those include concerns about Google's massive data collection operations and its efforts in China, which could help an authoritarian government censor its people.

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Congress barely scratched the surface on any of that. Instead, lawmakers traded barbs with opposing party members and could rarely escape the shadow of alleged anticonservative bias. Lieu wasn't the only one who thought Pichai's time before the House Judiciary Committee could be time better spent. Outside observers thought so, too.

"Instead of really getting to the nuts and bolts, they used this highly rare opportunity to focus on highly partisan issues that don't get to the bottom of the problem, which is Google's overall business model," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

That's because Google makes almost 90 percent of its revenue on advertising, and the company is able to charge marketers so much because of the personal information the company collects on users. The safety of that data -- both at the hands of hackers and governments -- has become a heated discussion for the entire tech industry.

Google declined to comment.

The Dragonfly controversy

When lawmakers finally did get off the topic of bias, they were able to cover some important ground.

One of Google's most controversial projects is Dragonfly, reportedly a censored search engine for China, a search engine market the company exited eight years ago. At the time of its departure, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union, cited the "totalitarianism" of Chinese policies for the company's moves. 

Rumors of the project alone have spurred protests and resignations. Last month, hundreds of Google employees, mostly software engineers, joined with the organization Amnesty International to publish a letter demanding Pichai cancel the project. Google has said little about Dragonfly, but the project would reportedly bring a censored search engine to China and make it possible to connect users' search queries to their phone numbers, enabling the Chinese government to more easily track searches.

Asked about Dragonfly on Tuesday, Pichai repeatedly said the country has "no plans" to launch a search engine there. But when pressed, he acknowledged the project had "over a hundred" people working on it at one point. That's notable because it's the most detail the company has gone into regarding the project's size. Despite the headcount, Pichai called it a "limited effort" within the company.

He also laid out what seems to be the company's main argument for re-entering the Chinese search market. "Getting access to information is an important human right," he said. "We are always compelled, across the world, to provide access to information."

In an interview with the Washington Post after the hearing, Pichai offered even more about what the project could look like. "Can we explore and serve users in China, in areas like education and health care?" he said. "We may not end up doing search. We're trying to understand a market."

Bob O'Donnell, head analyst for the research firm Technalysis, applauded the homework at least some of the lawmakers and their aides did, and their ability to get past the bias issues. For example, Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island, who asked the most pointed questions about Dragonfly, was the only lawmaker to bring up Google's AI principles, a set of guidelines Pichai released in June meant to outline how the company will and won't use artificial intelligence.

"The fundamental data privacy issues are very real," O'Donnell said. "I was hoping that's what they would get to because those are the most important questions for Google."

That's one reason he was disappointed Congress spent so much time on the bias issue, which Rep. Lieu dismissed.

"If you want positive search results, do positive things. If you don't want negative search results, don't do negative things," he said. "If you're getting bad press articles and bad search results, don't blame Google or Facebook or Twitter. Consider blaming yourself."

First published at 5 a.m. PT.
Update, 11:54 a.m. PT: Adds more background.

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