Business

Sundar Pichai of Google Heads to Capitol Hill

Posted December 11, 2018 7:32 a.m. EST

Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, will be testifying before the House Judiciary Committee today about whether the company’s search algorithms are biased against conservatives, as well as its privacy practices and growing market power.

Employees are taking advantage of the high-profile meeting to raise concerns about the company’s harassment and discrimination policies.

Pichai is following a well-worn path for the tech industry’s leading figures, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter, who have been called to defend and explain their companies to lawmakers this year.

The hearing Tuesday was called by Republican leaders to scrutinize Google’s search algorithms, which President Donald Trump and some top Republican lawmakers claim are stifling content from conservative news outlets and personalities. The accusations are largely discredited by academics and technologists, but Google, Twitter and Facebook have been dogged over the past year by suspicions that their companies, based in liberal-leaning Silicon Valley, have been trying to suppress the views of the right.

Pichai, in his prepared remarks for the hearing, pushed back against those Republican arguments by putting on a show of patriotism. He said the search giant was first and foremost an American company grounded in values like free speech and political neutrality.

“I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way,” Pichai said in the prepared remarks. “To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests.”

Pichai is also expected to face tough questions about potential plans to re-enter China, with a search product that would be censored by the demands of the Chinese government. Pichai has said the company hasn’t decided on plans to operate in China. In his prepared remarks, he kept the plans vague while trying to stress the company’s American loyalties.

“Even as we expand into new markets we never forget our American roots,” he said in his prepared remarks.

It is a pivotal time for Google, which is facing antitrust charges in Europe and louder calls by American lawmakers to investigate allegations that the company has used its dominant search engine to unfairly prioritize Google’s review, travel and shopping services. Google is also accused of using its popular Android mobile operating system to squeeze out rivals.

The hearing will furthermore provide a look into plans by Democrats to take on big tech when they take over the House majority in the next Congress.

Taking on Google

Before the hearing, Google’s critics drew attention to their grievances against the company, which could also be fodder for lawmakers.

A group of employees, who organized a walkout of 20,000 workers from the company’s offices last month over its harassment and discrimination policies, released a letter stating that Google’s concessions to the protests were not enough and that it plans to push for the end of mandatory arbitration in all cases and for all employees, including temporary and contract staff. The protests were prompted by an article in The New York Times in October revealing that Google had paid millions of dollars in exit packages to male executives accused of misconduct, while staying silent about the transgressions.

“But just as Google wants to convince the public that it can handle consumer privacy matters behind closed doors,” the employee group wrote, “it tells the same to its employees by forcing arbitration, requiring them to waive their right to sue or participate in a class-action lawsuit in all cases of discrimination.”

Separately, more than 50 human rights organizations signed a letter to Pichai demanding that the company stop working on Project Dragonfly, the initiative within Google to build a censored search engine that it may use in the Chinese market. A search engine that restricts content banned by the Chinese government is “troubling,” the groups said, because it would contribute to repressive censorship and surveillance.

Problems at Google Plus

Google has eight products with more than a billion monthly users, including search, YouTube and Google Drive, its suite of productivity apps. But a product that has struggled to amass users could provide fodder for questions from lawmakers about Google’s handling of user data.

Google announced Monday that it found a security vulnerability last month in Google Plus, the company’s answer to Facebook. The problem exposed the personal information of 52 million users to third-party developers even if the users had set their information to private. Google said it had no evidence that any developers were aware of or had misused the vulnerability during the six days that the bug existed. Google said it would now move up the timing of when it plans to shutter the consumer version of Google Plus, to April from August.

In October, Google announced that it found a similar security issue with Google Plus. Google found this vulnerability in March but did not report it immediately, waiting seven months to disclose the bug because it had found no evidence that anyone had exploited the problem to obtain user information. However, it brought new light to questions about how big technology companies handle user data.