Google CEO Sundar Pichai faces Congress over political bias, China and data collection

Sundar Pichai went to Capitol Hill to answer for the search giant’s recent controversies.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
6 min read
Google CEO Sundar Pichai Testifies Before House Judiciary Committee

Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Google CEO Sundar Pichai  defended the search giant against criticism of political bias, concerns over its data collection policies and worries about efforts in China during a high-profile appearance on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

The leader of the world's largest search engine took the stand before the House Judiciary Committee in Washington, DC. The three-and-a-half-hour question-and-answer session was wide ranging, but Republicans, who control the House, zeroed in on alleged bias against conservatives on Google's platforms, such as its search results and its YouTube video-sharing service.

Watch this: Representative slams colleagues, defends Google

Pichai, answering in a soft voice and measured tones, repeatedly denied the complaints. Google, he said, sorts through information without an agenda other than delivering relevant results to its users. 

"I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way," Pichai said in prepared testimony. "To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests. We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions -- and we have no shortage of them among our own employees."

Watch this: Google says China is important to explore -- even if it means censorship

Those words didn't satisfy House Republicans, who pushed back, often providing examples from their own search experiences. 

"The American people deserve to know what information they are not getting when they do searches on the internet," Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia.

Throughout the marathon session, Pichai found himself walking a fine line. While tamping down concerns that content surfaced in the company's results aren't diverse enough, he tried to reassure the committee that Google and YouTube take down content that could be harmful or objectionable. 

"YouTube is an important platform. We do want to allow for diverse perspectives and opinions, but we have rules of the road," Pichai said. "When we find violations on our policies, we do remove those videos."

The hearing marks Pichai's first appearance before Congress, one that's been a long time in the making. In September, Pichai skipped a high-profile tech hearing that included Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey . Both Pichai and Larry Page , the CEO of Google parent Alphabet, had been invited though neither showed up. At the time, Congress made clear its disappointment with the no-shows, setting an empty chair and a name tag reading "Google" next to Sandberg and Dorsey. Google's absence drew widespread anger from lawmakers.

Pichai, meanwhile, has been trying to mend Google's relationship with the federal government. Pichai, along with leadership from Microsoft , Oracle and other tech companies, attended a meeting last week at the White House to discuss 5G wireless networks, internet innovation and other tech subjects. Pichai also reportedly went to Washington in September to meet with lawmakers, including Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, in closed-door meetings.

As is often the case, Tuesday's hearing attracted a sideline spectacle. Alex Jones, the right-wing commentator known for spreading conspiracy theories on his Infowars platform, sat in the audience behind Pichai. At one point, a protester held up a sign that mashed up Google's logo with the Chinese flag. 

Another familiar face: A protester dressed as the Monopoly man, complete with a top hat and fake mustache. Ian Madrigal had previously donned the costume while attending a hearing in 2017 with then-Equifax CEO Richard Smith over a massive data breach. Madrigal also attended Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's appearance before lawmakers in April, wearing a troll doll costume draped in a Russian flag scarf. 

Tuesday's hearing comes as Silicon Valley faces a reckoning with both the government and public over data collection practices and misinformation on their platforms. Google has managed to escape much of the criticism that's been heaped on Facebook, which remains under fire for having been slow to respond to Russian interference in the 2016 election and mishandling the data of tens of millions of its 2.3 billion users in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Unanswered questions

Republicans were eager to question Pichai on alleged anti-conservative bias at Google, which, like most of Silicon Valley, is seen as a largely liberal-leaning company.

In August, President Donald Trump accused Google of skewing search results in a liberal direction, tweeting that Google's search results are "rigged" and saying the company is "suppressing voices of Conservatives." 

Democrats rejected the claims of conservative bias. Rep. Ted Lieu from California called the topic of the hearing "ridiculous," adding the negative news surfaced on Google isn't the company's fault. "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."

Still, Republicans had fodder for complaints.

After the Trump administration launched a 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."

In one tense exchange, Rep. Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio, criticized Pichai for allegedly praising the work of a Google employee during the 2016 election for helping to get out the Latino vote "in key states." Pichai, flustered, said the company acts without a political agenda and offered to follow up with Jordan's team. 

Efforts in China

Google has also been roiled by reports about Project Dragonfly, its reported plan to build a censored search engine for China, eight years after retreating from the country. At the time of its departure, Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union, cited the "totalitarianism" of Chinese policies for the company's moves.

Pichai, who's been described as a driving force behind the project, repeatedly said Tuesday that Google has "no plans" to launch a search engine in China and that the company is "only internally" working on the project.

He acknowledged the project had "over a hundred" people working on it at one point. The comment marked the most detail the company has gone into regarding the project's size. He said, though, that it's a "limited effort" within the company. 

Still, he seemed to leave the door open. "It's always in our duty to explore possibilities," he said.

The search giant has also dealt with controversies over security and data privacy. In October, Google announced it would be  shutting down its Google+ social network, months after the company found and fixed a security flaw that might've exposed the personal data of 500,000 Google+ users. But Google had disclosed the problem only after a report in The Wall Street Journal.

On Monday, Google said it found another Google+ bug that affected more than 50 million people. The vulnerability prompted Google to fast-track the social network's shutdown, originally planned for August, to April. 

Several lawmakers on Tuesday drilled down on the specific types of data Google can collect about users with its Android mobile operating system. Asked about collecting information such as IP addresses and user location, Pichai repeatedly said that people can adjust what Google collects by changing their settings. But he conceded that sometimes product settings and user agreements can be confusing. 

"We want to simplify it," he said. "I do think we can do better."

First published Dec. 11, 5 a.m. PT.
Updated, 8:39 a.m., 10:13 a.m. and 10:48 a.m. PT: Adds information from hearing.
Updated, Dec. 12, 11:39 a.m. PT: Adds more background. 

The Smartest Stuff: Innovators are thinking up new ways to make you, and the things around you, smarter.

Special Reports: CNET's in-depth features in one place.