Technology

As Google chief takes hot seat, lawmakers search their phones and cry ‘bias’

Rep. Chabot grills Google’s Sundar Pichai on search ‘bias’

House committee members question Google CEO Sundar Pichai about the company’s search algorithm and what they believe are biases in the results.
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House committee members question Google CEO Sundar Pichai about the company’s search algorithm and what they believe are biases in the results.

When members of Congress search their phones, they don’t much like what they see.

That was clear when Google chief executive Sundar Pichai took the hot seat Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee to defend his tech giant’s search engine. Several legislators conducted searches on their cell phones and griped to him on the spot about the results.

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, told Pichai that he had to scroll deep into search results to find any positive articles about President Donald Trump’s signature tax cuts last year.

“I know Google’s attitude — ‘The algorithm made us do it’ — but I don’t know that I buy that. How do you explain this apparent bias on Google’s part against conservative points of view, against conservative policies?” Chabot said.

“Do you see how conservatives believe that your company is kind of putting their thumb on the scale, so to speak, that you’re, in effect, picking winners and losers in political discourse out there in America today, and therefore actually affecting elections?” Chabot asked.

Blame the algorithms, Pichai responded. It’s not bias of company employees.

“I understand the frustration at seeing negative news, and I see it on me on Google,” Pichai told the packed hearing. “Our algorithms have no notion of political sentiment in them.”

Just as Republicans queried the Google chief about allegations of bias, Democratic legislators either dismissed the charges or offered their own complaints of a slant in Google search results.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, ranking Democrat on the committee, called the charges “a completely illegitimate issue, which is the fantasy, dreamed up by some conservatives, that Google and other online platforms have an anti-conservative bias.”

He said “no credible evidence supports this right-wing theory” and that holding a new hearing on “fictitious allegations” divert focus from substantive issues that the committee should discuss related to the tech sector.

Yet one Democratic lawmaker lobbed his own allegation of bias against Google. Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee grumbled about the search engine results offered up for him.

“I put my name in here, Rep. Steve Cohen. I punch news. This weekend I was on MSNBC four times, and yet the first thing that comes up is The Daily Caller, not exactly a liberal but I guess well known group, then Roll Call, then Breitbart News, then the Memphis Business Journal, then Breitbart News, then Breitbart,” he said.

“So it looks like you are overly using conservative news organizations on your news,” Cohen said.

Pichai’s long-awaited appearance marked his first time before a congressional hearing. The Mountain View, California, company did not send a representative to a hearing in September, leading to complaints of “arrogance” on the company’s part.

The company handles 3.5 billion internet searches per day and has inserted itself into the fabric of modern life. Its parent, Alphabet Inc., only trails Apple and Amazon as having the largest market capitalization among U.S. companies.

Charges of bias against Google’s search engine gained momentum in August when President Trump lashed out at the tech giant in a pair of tweets.

“Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake News Media,” he tweeted. “In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD.”

Some Republican legislators argued that Google is not doing enough to reduce bias from its algorithms.

“This doesn’t happen by accident but is baked into the algorithms. Those who write the algorithms get the results they must want and apparently management allows it,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas.

He decried the company’s dominance, saying it could sway the nation’s political future.

“Google could well elect the next president with dire implications for our democracy. This should be a real concern to all but the most politically partisan,” Smith said.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat whose California district is home to many of Google’s 85,000 employees, picked up an electronic device.

“Right now, if you Google the word ‘idiot’ under images, a picture of Donald Trump comes up. I just did that. How would that happen?” Lofgren asked.

It served as an invitation for Pichai to delve into the technical realm and he complied.

The engineer said Google’s search mechanism sorts through billions of webpages and ranks them “based on over 200 signals, things like relevance, freshness, popularity, how other people using it.”

“So it’s not some little man sitting behind the curtain figuring out what we are going to show the user?” Lofgren asked.

“We don’t, you know, manually intervene on any particular search result,” Pichai said moments later.

The hearing was interrupted when a protester outside the chamber opened a door and displayed a red sign with the word Google spelled out in a fashion that resembled the national flag of China, a protest of reports that Google has been working on a search engine that can be censored, making it palatable to China’s leaders. Google departed China in 2010.

“Right now, there are no plans to launch in China,” Pichai said, indicating that the program has ended. “We currently don’t plan on having a search product there.”

Tim Johnson, 202 383-6028, @timjohnson4
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