Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai today spent nearly four hours in Washington being grilled by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on a wide variety of matters as part of a comprehensive hearing on transparency and accountability, two things the tech giant has been accused of lacking in recent times. While the discussed topics were numerous, every single member of the panel was only allowed a five-minute window with the industry veteran, which limited the extent of Mr. Pichai's testimony by a substantial degree, albeit some issues kept arising as certain Representatives continued to press on them. As a result, the industry veteran ultimately did provide some insight in regards to how Google is run, how it views itself in the grand scheme of things, and what acts and episodes it's not proud of. Here are the five biggest such takeaways:
Images of Trump being the top result for "idiot" aren't evidence of bias: Pichai
One of the most curious exchanges between Mr. Pichai and the Judiciary Committee was initiated by Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren from California who inquired how Google Search determines to show dozens of images of President Donald Trump when users search for the term "idiot." The CEO went on to explain the basics of Google's algorithms, reiterating how Search draws many of its "smarts" from user data attributed to Internet content and essentially shows what the users are expecting to see, maintaining that none of its technologies have any inherent political inclinations. Rep. Lofgren agreed with the assessment, concluding the incoming Democratic House that's being sworn in this January is hoping to keep collaborating with Google on what it deems are more important issues.
How not telling the truth does not constitute lying
Ohio Republican Jim Jordan inquired with Mr. Pichai on a 2016 letter from Google multicultural marketing chief Eliana Murillo who explained how the company modified Search features in order to increase the Latino vote turnover during the 2016 election. While the CEO insisted the effort was part of a broader initiative meant to get more people to vote on a national level, Ms. Murillo's email specified the activity only took place "in key states" where the vote mattered the most. As that demographic traditionally leans to the left, Rep. Jordan questioned Google's claims of unbiased Internet services and political neutrality. When Mr. Pichai insisted Google's own look into the previously leaked email showed no evidence of such targeted political activity, Rep. Jordan asked the CEO whether he's saying Google's own executive was lying as the comment implies she pulled that information "out of thin air." Mr. Pichai repeatedly evaded the question before conceding her claims of such acts being conducted in key states were "not accurate."
Google still insisting the widely reported China Search project is no big deal
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) was the first to ask a question about Project Dragonfly, a highly controversial initiative whose existence only became known this August, more than a year following its inception. The main goal of the effort is a relaunch of Google Search in China in a manner that would make the service compliant with Beijing's strict censorship laws, preventing users from searching for terms such as "human rights" and "Nobel prize winners" and providing the communist government with any user data it requests. Mr. Pichai stuck to his previously voiced stance about Project Dragonfly not being a done deal, maintaining Alphabet's subsidiary currently has no plans to relaunch Search in China. The statement is directly contradicted by a recent report detailing how Google suppressed employee voices opposing the initiative which came from the same source that unveiled the existence of the effort four months ago. According to that expose, a censored version of Google Search for China may be ready to debut as early as April 2019 and come in the form of a mobile app for Android and iOS smartphones and tablets. Mr. Pichai's comments suggest Google will be pushing ahead with its China ambitions at all costs or at the very least won't be basing its strategy for the Far Eastern country with what the U.S. Congress thinks about dealing with the country's largest economic rival.
Stricter U.S. privacy regulations are incoming and Google made peace with that
This September, Google proposed a federal legislative framework meant to regulate data privacy, having done so immediately after California enacted its own privacy act akin to the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation. During today's hearing, Mr. Pichai repeatedly voiced support for federal-level regulation of the manner in which the tech sector collects, stores, manages, and uses data. While the company's business model is largely reliant on technically free services that collect information and use it for targeted advertising opportunities sold to marketers — meaning any additional regulations would stifle its ability to monetize its solutions and please investors — California appears to have opened the floodgates as talks of similar laws are currently ongoing in a number of other states and Google would obviously prefer keeping things tied to a single framework instead of creating and maintaining 50 different versions of its services for the U.S. alone. Naturally, that's not how Mr. Pichai put it and he instead chose to frame that stance as a noble endeavor meant to increase the overall level of digital privacy American consumers can expect during his Tuesday hearing.
Google insists it's mostly tracking you because you want it to
On the subject of intrusive Android tracking practices that are presently the subject of a number of lawsuits in the United States, Google's CEO unsurprisingly stuck with the company's official stance that all of its tracking activity is done not only with users' consent but by their very desire. If someone uses a navigation app, they obviously want to have their location tracked, the executive argued, albeit without directly referencing scenarios wherein that isn't the case. Mr. Pichai only acknowledged that IP addresses can contain location data, whereas Google was proven to have previously harvested such information from Wi-Fi details as well, even with Android location tracking settings turned off.