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Congress zeroes in on Google during historic tech antitrust hearing

CEO Sundar Pichai takes intense heat from lawmakers.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies remotely before Congress

Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies remotely before Congress on Wednesday. 

Getty

The leaders of four of the world's most powerful tech companies -- Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google -- appeared on Wednesday before a House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust. But one company took more of the lawmakers' heat than others: Google.

Sundar Pichai, the company's chief executive, faced bipartisan criticism. He was hammered on the company's digital ad business, privacy practices and policies toward working with the military.  

Right off the bat, Rep. David Cicilline, the Democrat from Rhode Island who is leading the House's investigation into big tech companies, zeroed in on the search giant. 

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"Why does Google steal content from honest businesses?" Cicilline asked Pichai, who appeared over a video feed from a sparse and brightly beige office. The lawmaker was referring to criticism that Google takes content from publishers and other websites, which has led to accusations it hurts competitors. The content is used in prepared answers in Google's search engine, instead of just providing a list of links.

"I disagree with that characterization," Pichai responded.

Other lawmakers dug into Google, too. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, scrutinized Google's relationship with China. When he got a second chance to ask questions, Gaetz accused Google of silencing conservative voices, a common refrain among GOP members of Congress. Rep. Greg Steube, also a Republican from Florida, brought up the theme of anti-conservative bias, too.

"There are more conservative voices than ever before" on YouTube, the massive video platform owned by Google, Pichai replied.

Pichai testified alongside Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Apple CEO Tim Cook. As the hearing got underway, lawmakers largely ignored Cook and Bezos -- the world's richest person -- though the subcommittee members turned to Bezos more frequently as the hearing went on. 

Of the four companies, Google is in the most imminent danger of antitrust action. The US Department of Justice is investigating Google's massive digital advertising business, and is expected to file a lawsuit against the search giant this summer. The company is also ensnared in another probe by a coalition of state attorneys general, led by Texas AG Ken Paxton.

Lawmakers are mainly focused Google's on dominance in web search, digital advertising and smartphone software. The company processes around 90% of all online searches in the US. That stranglehold on the market is the foundation of Google's massive advertising business, which generates almost all of the company's $160 billion in annual sales. Critics accuse Google of anticompetitive behavior with its ad business because the company owns all sides of the auction system, which could give Google an unfair edge. 

Google's Android operating system is the most popular mobile software in the world, powering almost nine out of every 10 smartphones shipped globally. The company has been accused of using that dominance to force partners to bundle Google's apps, like search and Maps, into their offerings. 

The hearing is Pichai's second visit to Capitol Hill for a congressional grilling. He faced the House Judiciary committee in December 2018, fielding questions about Google's data collection practices, relationship with China and alleged anti-conservative bias. 

The testimony came after Pichai was a no show to a another hearing earlier that year, when Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey faced the Senate. Pichai and Google co-founder Larry Page had been invited, and when they declined, an empty chair and a nameplate that said "GOOGLE" appeared next to the leaders of the other two companies.