Key Takeaways from Sundar Pichai’s Congress hearing over user data, political bias, and Project Dragonfly

12 min read

Google CEO, Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee earlier this week. The hearing titled “Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and its Data Collection, Use, and Filtering Practices” was a three-and-a-half-hour question-answer session that centered mainly around user data collection at Google, allegations of political bias in its search algorithms, and Google’s controversial plans with China.

“All of these topics, competition, censorship, bias, and others..point to one fundamental question that demands the nation’s attention. Are America’s technology companies serving as instruments of freedom or instruments of control?,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader.

The committee members could have engaged with Pichai on more important topics had they not been busy focussing on opposing each other’s opinions over whether Google search and its other products are biased against conservatives. Also, most of Pichai’s responses were unsatisfactory as he cleverly dodged questions regarding its Project Dragonfly and user data.

Here are the key highlights from the testimony.

Allegations of Political Bias

One common theme throughout the long hearing session was Republicans asking questions based around alleged bias against conservatives on Google’s platforms.

Google search Bias

Rep. Lamar Smith asked questions regarding the alleged political bias that is “imbibed” in Google’s search algorithms and its culture. Smith presented an example of a study by Robert Epstein, a Harvard trained psychologist. As per the study’s results, Google’s search bias likely swung 2.6 million votes to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 elections.

To this Pichai’s reply was that Google has investigated some of the studies including the one by Dr. Epstein, and found that there were issues with the methodology and its sample size. He also mentioned how Google evaluates their search results for accuracy by using a “robust methodology” that it has been using for the past 20 years. Pichai also added that “providing users with high quality, accurate, and trusted information is sacrosanct to us. It’s what our principles are and our business interests and our natural long-term incentives are aligned with that. We need to serve users everywhere and we need to earn their trust in order to do so.”

Google employees’ bias, the reason for biased search algorithms, say Republicans

Smith also presented examples of pro-Trump content and immigration laws being tagged as hate speech on Google search results posing threat to the democratic form of government. He also alleged that people at Google were biased and intentionally transferred their biases into these search algorithms to get the results they want and management allows it.

Pichai clarified that Google doesn’t manually intervene on any particular search result. “Google doesn’t choose conservative voices over liberal voices. There’s no political bias and Google operates in a neutral way,” added Pichai.

Would Google allow an independent third party to study its search results to determine the degree of political bias?

Pichai responded to this question saying that they already have third parties that are completely independent and haven’t been appointed by Google in place for evaluating its search algorithms.

“We’re transparent as to how we evaluate our search. We publish our rater guidelines. We publish it externally and raters evaluate it, we’re trying hard to understand what users want and this is what we think is right. It’s not possible for an employee or a group of employees to manipulate our search algorithm”.

Political advertising bias

The Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia also asked Pichai about political advertising bias on Google’s ad platforms that offer different rates for different political candidates to reach prospective voters. This is largely different than how other competitive media platforms like TV and radio operate – offering the lowest rate to all political candidates. He asked if Google should charge the same effective ad rates to political candidates.

Pichai explained that their advertising products are built without any bias and the rates are competitive and set by a live auction process. The prices are calculated automatically based on the keywords that you’re bidding for, and on the demand in the auction. There won’t be a difference in rates based on any political reasons unless there are keywords that are of particular interest. He referred the whole situation to a demand-supply equilibrium, where the rates can differ but that will vary from time to time. There could be occasions when there is a substantial difference in rates based on the time of the day, location, how keywords are chosen etc, and it’s a process that Google has been using for over 20 years.

Pichai further added that “anything to do with the civic process, we make sure to do it in a non-partisan way and it’s really important for us”.

User data collection and security

Another highlight of the hearing was Google’s practices around user data collection and security. “Google is able to collect an amount of information about its users that would even make the NSA blush. Americans have no idea the sheer volume of information that is collected”, said Goodlatte.

Location tracking data related privacy concerns

During Mr. Pichai’s testimony, the first question from Rep. Goodlatte was about whether consumers understand the frequency and amount of location data that Google collects from its Android operating system. Goodlatte asked Pichai about the collection of location data and apps running on Android. To this Pichai replied that Google offers users controls for limiting location data collection. “We go to great lengths to protect their privacy, we give them transparency, choice, and control,” says Pichai.

Pichai highlighted that Android is a powerful smartphone that offers services to over 2 billion people. User data that is collected via Android depends on the applications that users choose to use. He also pointed out that Google makes it very clear to its users about what information is collected. He pointed out that there are terms of service and also a “privacy checkup”. Going to  “my account” settings on Gmail gives you a clear picture of what user data they have. He also says that users can take that data to other platforms if they choose to stop using Google.

On Google+ data breach

Another Rep. Jerrold Nadler talked about the recent Google plus data breach that affected some 52.5 million users. He asked Pichai about the legal obligations that the company is under to publicly expose the security issues. Pichai responded to this saying that Google “takes privacy seriously,” and that Google needs to alert the users and the necessary authorities of any kind of data breach or bugs within 72 hours. He also mentions “building software inevitably has bugs associated as part of the process”.  Google undertakes a lot of efforts to find bugs and the root cause of it, and make sure to take care of it. He also says how they have advanced protection in Gmail to offer a stronger layer of security to its users.

Google’s commitment to protecting U.S. elections from foreign interference

It was last year when Google discovered that Russian operatives spent tens of thousands of dollars on ads on its YouTube, Gmail and Google Search products in an effort to meddle in the 2016 US presidential election. “Does Google now know the full extent to which its online platforms were exploited by Russian actors in the election 2 years ago?” asked Nadler.

Pichai responded that Google conducted a thorough investigation in 2016. It found out that there were two main ads accounts linked to Russia which advertised on google for about 4700 dollars in advertising. “We found a limited activity, improper activity, we learned from that and have increased the protections dramatically we have around our elections offering”, says Pichai. He also added that to protect the US elections, Google will do a significant review of how ads are bought, it will look for the origin of these accounts, share and collaborate with law enforcement, and other tech companies. “Protecting our elections is foundational to our democracy and you have my full commitment that we will do that,” said Pichai.

Google’s plans with China

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee was the first person to directly ask Pichai about the company’s Project Dragonfly i.e. its plans of building a censored search engine with China. “We applauded you in 2010 when Google took a very powerful stand principle and democratic values over profits and came out of China,” said Jackson. Other who asked Pichai regarding Google’s China plans were Rep. Tom Marino and Rep. David Cicilline. Google left China in 2010 because of concerns regarding hacking, attacks, censorship, and how the Chinese government was gaining access to its data.

How is working with the Chinese govt to censor search results a part of Google’s core values?

Pichai repeatedly said that Google has no plans currently to launch in China. “We don’t have a search product there. Our core mission is to provide users with access to information and getting access to information is an important right (of users) so we try hard to provide that information”, says Pichai. He added that Google always has evidence based on every country that it has operated in. “Us reaching out and giving users more information has a very positive impact and we feel that calling but right now there are no plans to launch in China,” says Pichai. He also mentioned that if Google ever approaches a decision like that he’ll be fully transparent with US policymakers and “engage in consult widely”.

He further added that Google only provides Android services in China for which it has partners and manufacturers all around the world. “We don’t have any special agreements on user data with the Chinese government”, said Pichai.  On being asked by Rep. Marino about a report from The Intercept that said Google created a prototype for a search engine to censor content in China, Pichai replied, “we designed what a search could look like if it were to be launched in a country like China and that’s what we explored”.

Rep. Cicilline asked Pichai whether any employees within Google are currently attending product meetings on Dragonfly. Pichai replied evasively saying that Google has “undertaken an internal effort, but right now there are no plans to launch a search service in China necessarily”. Cicilline shot another question at Pichai asking if Google employees are talking to members of the Chinese government, which Pichai dodged by responding with “Currently we are not in discussions around launching a search product in China,” instead. Lastly, when Pichai was asked if he would rule out “launching a tool for surveillance and censorship in China”, he replied that Google’s mission is providing users with information, and that “we always think it’s in our duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information. I have a commitment, but as I’ve said earlier we’ll be very thoughtful and we’ll engage widely as we make progress”.

On ending forced arbitration for all forms of discrimination

Last month 20,000 Google employees along with Temps, Vendors, and Contractors walked out of their respective Google offices to protest discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. As part of the walkout, Google employees laid out five demands urging Google to bring about structural changes within the workplace. One of the demands was ending forced arbitration meaning that Google should no longer require people to waive their right to sue. Also, that every co-worker should have the right to bring a representative, or supporter of their choice when meeting with HR for filing a harassment claim.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal asked Pichai if he can commit to expanding the policy of ending forced arbitration for any violation of an employee’s (also contractors) right not just sexual harassment. To this Pichai replied that Google is currently definitely looking into this further. “It’s an area where I’ve gotten feedback personally from our employees so we’re currently reviewing what we could do and I’m looking forward to consulting, and I’m happy to think about more changes here. I’m happy to have my office follow up to get your thoughts on it and we are definitely committed to looking into this more and making changes”, said Pichai.

Managing misinformation and hate speech

During the hearing, Pichai was questioned about how Google is handling misinformation and hate speech. Rep. Jamie Raskin asked why videos promoting conspiracy theory known as “Frazzledrip,” ( Hillary Clinton kills young women and drinks their blood) are still allowed on YouTube. To this Pichai responded with, “We would need to validate whether that specific video violates our policies”.

Rep. Jerry Nadler also asked Pichai about Google’s actions to “combat white supremacy and right-wing extremism.” Pichai said Google has defined policies against hate speech and that if Google finds violations, it takes down the content.

“We feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to moderate hate speech, define hate speech clearly inciting violence or hatred towards a group of people. It’s absolutely something we need to take a strict line on. We’ve stated our policies strictly and we’re working hard to make our enforcement better and we’ve gotten a lot better but it’s not enough so yeah we’re committed to doing a lot more here”, said Pichai.

Our Take

Hearings between tech companies and legislators, in the current form, are an utter failure. In addition to making tech reforms, there is an urgent need to also make reforms in how policy hearings are conducted.

It is high time we upgraded ourselves to the 21st century.

These were the key highlights of the hearing held on 11th December 2018. We recommend you watch the complete hearing for a more comprehensive context.

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Natasha Mathur
Tech writer at the Packt Hub. Dreamer, book nerd, lover of scented candles, karaoke, and Gilmore Girls.

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