Google’s Pichai answers to Congress: The good, the bad and the frustrating

google pichai congressional hearing

The appearance of Google CEO Sundar Pichai in front of Congress yesterday has been eagerly anticipated by those of us following the company’s tumultuous year in the face of criticism from international press, human rights organizations, and its own staff.

The hearing – lasting more than three hours – was titled Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices and promised to give Pichai an opportunity to publicly clarify the search giant’s position on consumer rights in regards to privacy in an increasingly data-dependent world – as well as reflecting on its openness as a business in the political context at home and abroad.

Overall, the hearing was a bit of a mixed bag. This was less to do with the substance of Pichai’s answers and more to do with the flawed questioning from the assembled. Here are what I took away as good and bad responses from the Google chief, as well as a few of my frustrations.

The good

Some of Pichai’s most substantial answers came when asked about issues of diversity, the wellbeing of ethnic minorities, and the rights of women.

He reiterated Google’s commitment to diversity and made reference to the fact that the business were the first to publish a transparency report on their diversity. He also pointed to combating the spread of white supremacy content on YouTube and made clear his and the company’s zero-tolerance attitude on hate speech.

This was obviously comforting to the assembled congress men and women – particularly as the US has seen hate crimes rise by 17% last year, and online media is argued to be adding to the normalization of hate speech in the mainstream.

Pichai was also asked about forced arbitration within the business – a subject that came to the fore last month as staff in Google offices around the world staged a mass walkout ‘to protest sexual harassment, misconduct, lack of transparency, and a workplace that doesn’t work for everyone.’

His response was that the company have already enacted changes where forced arbitration for sexual harassment is concerned. This means that if employees want to bring sexual harassment charges against someone they now have the right to do so outside of the internal arbitration structure of the business (via a class action lawsuit, for instance). Pichai also expressed commitment to make changes (ultimately removing forced arbitration, I assume) outside of the realm of sexual harassment – giving more options and rights back to the employees.

The bad

As we expected, a number of questions during the hearing were focused on the rumored development of a new search product for the Chinese market.

Pichai was initially quite firm that Google had no plans to launch a search product (currently referred to as Dragonfly) in China, but the more he was pressed on the subject, the more woolly that stance became. ‘We have undertaken internal effort,’ he said, adding later: ‘It’s our duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information.’

Answers here were less substantial than those given in a recent Q&A with Pichai at the Wired 25 Summit in October. But we can see that internal development on a tool for the Chinese market is ongoing – even in the face of calls from staff to shut it down. Pichai’s stance is that pursuing work to give access to information for consumers everywhere (including China) is the human right he, and Google, is focused on. He did commit to being transparent as this work continues, but I have my doubts.

Some of the other more difficult questions for Pichai concerned internal messages and discussions from Google staff regarding domestic politics.

He was pressed on potential bias when a staff member admitted in an email to the company helping to get the Latino vote out in key states and not others during the 2016 election. Pichai denied such activities happened – at least in terms of Google itself working to do this. Another congressman questioned whether it was right that there should be a forum for the Resist (anti Donald Trump) group on Google’s staff network. Pichai said he was not aware of the group.

The frustrating

As we’ve seen, some of the questions on bias at Google are justified – although they frequently simmer down to semantics of the language used by staff when discussing politics on company time and in staff forums. Who is ‘we’ in the case of getting the Latino vote out in key states? Is the content discussed in the Resist group too political?

There were also plenty of frustrating moments where the capacity of congress members to understand how an algorithm which takes into account a vast number of metrics (including freshness, how linked-to the content is, and previous individual search history) can sometimes deliver results that appear more or less conservative or liberal.

I felt sorry for Pichai as he spent several minutes assuring one congressman that while his search for Donald Trump gave mostly negative results, the algorithm itself is neutral and the best content for the search query (in terms of quality and relevance) just so happens to not present Trump in a positive light. A few moments later, a congressman (presumably on the other side of the fence) expressed his disgruntlement after a recent vanity search to find most top ranking sites running stories about him were from the right wing news press.

All too often congressmen were seen to bark at Pichai, “it’s a yes or no answer,” when it could never be. Some held their iPhones (not Android devices) aloft and expected Pichai to know whether any Google apps on it were saving location data. These instances managed to be both depressing and humorous, but they highlighted a number of dualities Google must contend with as it moves into 2019. As a business, it has to be at the forefront of technology dealing with the complex issue of the world’s information and data, while still making sure every day consumers can use it safely and successfully.

At the same time, Google must be neutral in what it delivers to consumers – while having a staff that is always likely to lean one way politically more than the other, and also striving to be progressive in how it operates.

And ultimately, it still has a mission to provide users – wherever they are – with the best search information. It is clear that in the case of China, some negotiation with a government known to operate surveillance has to happen. In the case of the US, the company has to answer to a political class that is so binary that it, by comparison, can seem very outdated.

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