House Republicans told Google CEO Sundar Pichai that he needs to do something about what they consider to be a liberal bias inside his company's ranks, saying Google has suppressed conservative views on its search and video platforms.
Accusations that Silicon Valley heavy hitters are suppressing conservative voices online have been part of an ongoing narrative this year, pushed by Republican lawmakers and President Donald Trump, who's tweeted about it. Facebook and Twitter executives were questioned about their companies' practices during congressional testimony earlier this year. Google has long denied the accusations, a stance Pichai reiterated many times during the three-and-a-half-hour hearing.
"I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way," Pichai said in his prepared remarks. "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."
Among the most notable claims of bias are assertions the search engine has favored anti-Trump news outlets over conservative publications in results. That, critics say, has resulted in far more negative stories about Trump and conservatives than about Democrats. They've also accused the company of charging conservatives more than their liberal opponents to run political advertisements. They see liberals at Google using the search company's products to push a left-leaning political agenda.
In one of the more heated exchanges with Pichai, Rep. Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio, referred to an email sent the day after the 2016 presidential campaign in which Eliana Murillo, Google's head of multicultural marketing, discussed Google's efforts to get out the Latino vote in the 2016 presidential election in "key states."
Jordan pushed Pichai to explain why Google employees were trying to influence the Latino vote. Pichai responded that Google's own investigation into the matter showed there was no such company influence. He said Google doesn't "participate in partisan activities," adding, "We engage with both campaigns, and support and sponsor debates on both sides of the aisle."
Other Republicans questioning Pichai also focused on the perceived bias of Google employees.
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida pressed Pichai on why Google hadn't launched an investigation into allegations that employees plotted to block Breitbart, a conservative site, from an advertising program. He pointed to reports of leaked emails from employees, who were trying to classify parts of Breitbart's website as hate speech to get its advertising removed. He quoted from one of the emails that purportedly stated, "Anyone want to hold their nose and look through Breitbart.com for hate speech?"
"Why would someone need to hold their nose over that work?" Gaetz asked Pichai.
Pichai acknowledged that Google's employees are free to express their views, but he said the company has strict policies against allowing those views to influence its products.
"Congressman, today we have 90,000 employees, and they communicate in forums [that] as a company we have allowed -- freedom of expression," Pichai responded. "And we don't stand or condone comments expressing these things. We are very clear as to our policies of how we build our products, and we serve our publishers that way."
Gaetz, who's also criticized Twitter for allegedly "shadow banning" his account, pressed Pichai over what it would take for Google to investigate such allegations.
"How can I have confidence that you're protecting the sanctity of your system when you don't even know your employees are getting together on your own company's infrastructure to talk about political activity?" he asked Pichai.
Pichai said the system is built to assume that someone may act in bad faith at any time. A single person or small group can't influence the search results for political gain, he said, because there are too many people involved in programming Google's algorithms and too many steps to go through.
But other Republican lawmakers said they still don't trust that Google's system is protected, especially since they have no idea who's programming the algorithm or making other decisions in terms of what content is classified as hate speech and what isn't. Rep. Steve King, a Republican from Missouri, demanded that Google make public the names of employees who work on the company's search algorithm. That way, he said, the public could look through their social media history for any bias against conservatives.
Pichai said Google typically doesn't monitor its employees' social media, reiterating that they're allowed to have their own political opinions.
Democrats push back
Rep. Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York, called the accusations a "fantasy dreamed up by some conservatives that Google and other online platforms have an anti-conservative bias."
Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, said the inquiry into whether Google was biased was a "waste of time." He said even if Google is biased, it's a private company and the First Amendment protects it. But he added there's no evidence to suggest such bias even exists. He did a Google search to demonstrate that Google's search tool surfaces positive search results on Republicans.
"If you want positive searches, do positive things," Lieu said. "If you get bad press, don't blame Google. Consider blaming yourself."
There's little evidence to suggest individual Google employees have tampered with the algorithm to disadvantage conservatives. But experts like Frank Pasquale, a law professor at the University of Maryland who's focused on artificial intelligence, algorithms and machine learning, says the company needs to be more open about how it operates, to reassure the public it's acting in good faith.
"When it comes to political bias, the lack of transparency and the lack of ability for the public to understand how it works, means suspicion will continue," Pasquale said. "And because of that we'll likely have more of these hearings."