Congress should dig in on Google's China and data issues, not just bias

As CEO Sundar Pichai goes to Capitol Hill this week, experts say there’s more to discuss than just perceived bias against conservatives.

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
4 min read

Google CEO Sundar Pichai is set to testify before Congress this week.

James Martin/CNET

At his first congressional hearing, Google CEO Sundar Pichai will likely get a grilling from lawmakers.

The underlying question about Tuesday's hearing is whether House Judiciary Committee members will use their time to actually ask about some of the biggest issues -- like data privacy, China and censorship -- that  Google  faces.

When the committee announced the hearing, the issue that got top billing was whether the world's biggest search engine and its YouTube video service have a bias against conservatives. That makes sense, given that Republicans control the House of Representatives.

"The technology behind online services like social media and Internet search engines can also be used to suppress particular viewpoints and manipulate public opinion," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, said in a statement.

But devoting a big chunk of the hearing to discussing bias would would be a mistake, industry watchers say. Google is facing real challenges. Hearing directly from its CEO could be illuminating if lawmakers use their time wisely. After all, there's lots for them to discuss.

There's the secretive Project Dragonfly, which will reportedly bring a censored search engine to China and which has prompted employee protests and resignations. There's the controversy over data collection, after reports that Google tracked people's location even after they'd turned off location-sharing on their phones. And there are security issues, like a bug that left hundreds of thousands of people's personal information exposed on the Google+ social network.

"There are bigger fish to fry," said Bob O'Donnell, head analyst at Technalysis Research. "If the focus is mostly on conservative bias, that becomes a highly political and not necessarily productive conversation."

That's because some of the accusations already hurled at Google over conservative bias have been dispelled.

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

In August, President Donald Trump accused Google of political bias and having a liberal bent. He tweeted that Google's search results are "rigged," saying the company is "suppressing voices of Conservatives." He also tweeted a video claiming Google promoted former President Barack Obama's State of the Union addresses every January but not his. Trump added the hashtag #StopTheBias.

Except Trump got it wrong. Google rejected his claim, noting that its home page did promote the president's address in January. The company also said it didn't promote either Trump's or Obama's address from their first years in office because those speeches aren't technically considered State of the Union addresses. 

A screenshot from the Internet Archive, which keeps a record of what appears on web domains, backed up Google.

Still, that doesn't mean the question of anticonservative bias shouldn't be part of the conversation. Last year, after the Trump administration launched its 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."

Pichai, who skipped out on a high-profile hearing in September with Facebook and Twitter, will likely face questions about what's perceived to be a liberal culture at the search giant.

China and data questions

But if lawmakers shouldn't spend all their time asking about issues of bias, what should they discuss?

One of the big things is data collection, said David Eaves, a public policy lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. "The thing I would want Congress to be focused on is, are these companies using data they collect to shut down competitors?" he said. "Could the advertising profiles they are building over time, in the wrong hands, pose a threat to social norms or values we think are critical to western democracy?"

Eaves doesn't necessarily know what that threat might look like, or if it will arise, but he says we should think hard about what governance should be about when it comes to a tech and digital economy. "We've never lived in a world where so much data is collected," he said.

Google, which runs eight services that have more than 1 billion users each, including YouTube, Gmail, Google maps and search, has been in hot water over the last few months because of its data collection policies. The search giant was criticized after reports surfaced that employees at third-party email apps could read our emails if we integrated those apps with our Gmail account. Google was hammered again in August, when the Associated Press revealed the company was tracking users' locations even after they'd turned off their phones' location history setting.

In October, Google announced it was shutting down its Google+ social network after the company found and fixed a security flaw in March that might've exposed the personal data of 500,000 Google+ users. But Google remained silent about the problem for months and came clean only after a report appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

Lawmakers should also ask about Project Dragonfly, Google's effort to re-enter the Chinese search engine market. In 2010 when the company initially retreated from the country, Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union, cited the "totalitarianism" of Chinese policies. The new search product would reportedly blacklist certain terms the Chinese government found unfavorable, as well as tie search queries to users' phone numbers, allowing the government to more easily track searches.

Since the project was revealed in August, Pichai has repeatedly said it's only "exploratory." But investigative reports have said Google had plans to launch next year.

Congress will likely want to know more.

"Do you want American companies contributing to censorship in foreign countries?" O'Donnell said. "Those are massive philosophical and political questions." 

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