The hearings of Sundar Pichai were held against the backdrop of protests over the work on a censored search engine for China.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai was the last of the representatives of IT companies in Silicon Valley, who spoke to US Congress in 2018. For 3.5 hours, he answered questions from American politicians about collecting and selling data, censorship, privacy, and relations with China.
As a result, according to the American media, Pichai emerged unscathed. The Washington Post called it a “circus.” Basically, Pichai responded in a streamlined fashion, but he never made a mistake and never gave a reason for a new scandal. Congressmen, as in the cases with Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, touched on topical issues, but could not find anything sensational from the head of Google.
The essence of the hearing
About collecting and selling data
One of the main topics of conversation between congressmen and Pichai was the processing and transmission of personal data. The role played by a fresh investigation of the New York Times about spying on users through applications with access to geolocation. It mentions Google among other things. At the same time there is no compromising evidence in the investigation: in the latest version of Android, the collection of location data is limited, and there is no evidence in favor of a version for selling information to third parties.
However, Pichai was not asked particularly specific questions–and he responded accordingly. He was asked if Google could track people if they turned off geolocation or “cut off” a device from the Internet. The CEO of the company noted that the information collected depends on the specific device, application and user settings.
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) December 11, 2018
Some location data can be saved even when settings are disabled: this, for example, helps Google recognize a local language. Pichai told congressmen that the company collects information including via GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. To share information with Google, you do not need to have a Google account: the company also collects data about those who have visited a web page with contextual advertising from Google Ads. All this was known in one way or another.
One of the most significant moments is that during the hearings, the Republican Congressman from Texas, Ted Poe, picked up an iPhone and asked if Google could track its location if he went to another room. With a smile, Pichai tried to explain the policy nuances, but, apparently, he could not.
Congressman: Does Google know that I’m sitting right here and I will pass right there?
Pichai: Not by default.
Congressman: This is not a trick question. You earn 100 million dollars a year, so you should be able to answer this question.
Pichai: I can’t answer until I see what settings you have turned on.
About objectivity and algorithms
Congressmen suspected Google of censoring conservative points of view. And this is despite the fact that the Democrats said that they see materials from The Daily Caller and Breitbart publications among their own search results. Pichai reiterated what Google has already stated repeatedly: the algorithms are designed to respect political neutrality.
The congressmen’s claims were that the parameters of the algorithms are still developed by people with subjective views. According to Pichai, more than 1,000 people work on the search engine, and any change cannot be made without several verification steps.
One of the most embarrassing moments occurred when Democrat Congressman Zoe Lofgren asked why, when entering the query “idiot” Google shows pictures of US President Donald Trump. Pichai once again dismissed accusations of bias and manual management of search results. According to him, the best results for each query are automatically ranked.
About the search engine for China
Google does not work in China since 2010 due to the refusal to censor search results. The fact that Google is working on the Dragonfly project with built-in censorship for China became known in August 2018. The company admitted this only in October. It was assumed that from the issue will automatically remove requests blocked by the “Great Chinese Firewall”. Google employees openly opposed the project.
At the congressional hearing, Pichai said that Google has no plans to launch a search engine in China. At the same time, the head of the company confirmed that the company had developed a prototype of what Dragonfly might look like. According to Pichai, the “for a while” project was at work–and about 100 people were engaged at the peak. But Google has not reached any agreements with the Chinese government.
What happened around the hearing
During the Pichai hearings, there were a few protests against the creation of a search engine censored for China. Before the hall in Congress, was stretched a poster with the Google logo, the letters “OO” in the form of handcuffs and the flag of China.
— Cassandra Fairbanks ❤️⏳ (@CassandraRules) December 11, 2018
American journalist and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones came to Congress and shouted in the direction of Pichai that “Google is evil.”
— Rob Dew (@DewsNewz) December 11, 2018
At the hearing, an American appeared again in the suit of Pennybags, the mascot of the Monopoly board game. For more than a year, he has opposed the ban on Equifax clients from attending meetings on the theft of personal data. Pennybags though attracted attention, but behaved quietly.
Has anyone confirmed that the Monopoly Man sitting behind Pichai is really just a Bing engineer? pic.twitter.com/XSBAanubJ9
— Joanna Stern (@JoannaStern) December 11, 2018