What We Learned From Google In Congress: Not Much

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If you are already involved with the tech community, or even moderately aware of how Google-related products work, the chances are high that Google’s appearance in front of the House Judiciary Committee won’t matter to you. As the information provided was little more than superficial at best and this was the result of those on both sides of the now-infamous table. While those in power asked questions that barely touched the surface, the answers provided by Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, proved to be equally lightweight. For the times when a question did peek behind the curtain (reference shout-out to Rep. Zoe Lofgren's (D-CA) “little man behind a curtain” comment), answers were avoided completely, outright denied, or worse still, came with the standard tech CEO “we need to do better” disclaimer.

Doing better, room to improve

One thing that becomes very apparent the more tech CEOs turn up in front of Congress, is their seemingly clear understanding that they need to do better and Pichai was no different in this respect. In spite of leading the charge of what is arguably the most informed company on the planet, how Google will do better was never quantified in any meaningful capacity. Instead, Pichai, like Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg who sat before, replied to all actual and substantive claims with the generic “we need to do better” phase which acts as nothing other than an avoidance of the question/topic at hand. Privacy – we need to better. Advising users of changes to its system – we need to better. Political bias – doesn’t exist according to Pichai though the company can do better. On the times in which Google presumably doesn’t need to ‘do better,’ Pichai reverted to step two in the tech CEO PR handbook (available at all good bookstores) with “I’ll follow up with you on that.”


Questions asked but lack of understanding evident

In total, the public side of today's events lasted around three and a half hours, which is a long time for what effectively boils down to a Q&A session. Of course, the length was largely determined by the sheer number of members of the House Judiciary Committee who each wanted to ask their own questions – even though many of those inquiries were echoed sentiments of those that came before. Occasionally, some questions cut further down to some of the more deeper issues (instances of where Google Search bias has reared its head, Project Dragonfly), though these were never answered in any way that suggested the question was even worth asking in a public domain in the first place – it was never going to be answered in a meaningful way. Then on occasion, some questions outright defied logic. One example was when Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) asked Pichai if Google was aware of when he moved across the room based on his phone. The only issue being it was an iPhone he was holding and referring to.

In fairness, removing the iPhone from the equation and just focusing on ‘a phone’ would have made this a viable and worthwhile question. However, the fact it was an iPhone and the fact Poe actively referred to it as an iPhone left the door open for Pichai to answer the question with a ‘no, but it depends’ sentiment. Although unhelpful, and in no way an actual answer to the question, it was actually a truthful answer. No. It’s an iPhone. So Google won’t by default be collecting data. However, if that particular iPhone came with a Google app installed then it undoubtedly would be collecting some data. Highlighting the issue with such questioning again, as while the query itself was valid, the answers given were for the most part useless, or repetition of already known information. It was not the question that was the issue, but the context of the thereof that allowed Pichai to answer with avoidance – "no, but it depends."

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Part of a much wider issue

This highlights a much wider issue and one that has now been seen with both Pichai and Zuckerberg where the questions being asked were asked from a place of limited understanding of the technology. While questions, in the more defining sense are typically asked by those that don’t understand, in the context of these hearings/meetings, prior understanding of the topic is crucial to the act of asking them. Otherwise, they open the door, as was seen today, to tech CEOs who are there to answer questions, given a route to which they can avoid doing so. When there's a much greater understanding of the topic, and inquiries are made within finer parameters, it reduces the capacity for avoidance, forcing those in the hot seat to answer the question directly.

In addition, and while most of the questions were, as to be expected, peppered with negative connotations about Google – lack of user data protection, political bias, China, Russia, election meddling, and so on – there were some in attendance who opted to use their restrictive 5-minute time to ‘grill’ the Google CEO to highlight some of the good the company has been doing, including acting as a good 'corporate citizen,' and even at times arguing Google does not utilize a left-leaning/anti-right bias. Which while commendable doesn't really help in terms of the point of the meeting. In fact, when it comes to arguing against the left-leaning/anti-right bias claims, some members of Congress were technically answering the questions Pichai was there to answer himself. Again, while commendable for exercising one’s opinion on the topic at hand, it once again only served to offer Pichai a way to avoid answering the more serious questions – of which there were many.


China, political bias and the First Amendment

China was certainly one of the more controversial topics that emerged during the meeting although, it would seem the inclusion of the topic was redundant considering, contrary to reports, Pichai repeatedly stated Google has “no plans” to launch a search-based product in China – for the time being. Only highlighting that the matter was only ever discussed internally, and presumably as a possibility and not an intended goal of the company.

Then, there was the matter of the political bias specifically targeted at Republicans. This particular theme proved to be popular with different versions of the same question asked throughout the hearing. Even in spite of some members of Congress clearly of the understanding the use of such questioning is a waste of time due to the protection afforded to Google through the First Amendment, not to mention the fact all they offered in terms of proof of Search bias was anecdotal evidence. This was most eloquently pointed out by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Ca.) who then followed this point by proceeded to ask Pichai another version of the same question.


It was not all a well-orchestrated and textbook definition of 'how to avoid' by Google, as Rep. Jim Jordan put Picahi in a very uncomfortable position of having to deny Google has a political agenda, in spite of drawing on previous communications from a Google employee which seemed to indicate Google actively tried to help with the ‘Latino vote’ during the 2016 election and specifically “in key states.” Then of course, there was the occasion subliminal awkward moment that emerged, such as the well-dressed ‘Monopoly man’ sat on Pichai's shoulder (pictured above).