Unlike the last time Congress held a hearing designed to put Google on the hot seat—an August session of the Senate intelligence committee that featured a prominent empty chair with Google’s name on it—CEO Sundar Pichai actually showed up to this one, a question-and-answer session with the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. And if nervousness or apprehension about a possible grilling contributed to Pichai’s desire not to attend the August hearing, Tuesday’s event likely convinced him those fears were unfounded. The vast majority of questions from both parties were either shallow attempts at grandstanding or technologically uninformed, or both.
In many ways, the hearing was a replay of the congressional hearings with Facebook—including two in April—only with Pichai playing the role of punching bag instead of Mark Zuckerberg. It even opened the same way a hearing into Facebook did in September, with Infowars founder and bogus health-supplement pitchman Alex Jones shouting in the hallway about YouTube infringing on his free speech rights (his channel was blocked earlier this year by Google’s video-sharing site). This was followed by a parade of congressmen and women asking hard-hitting questions like: “If I take my iPhone across the room to sit with the Democrats, would Google be able to tell?” Pichai was able to deflect most questions not just with a rhetorical wave of his hand, but by answering astonishingly basic questions about technology. A question about why a photo showed up on a congressman’s granddaughter’s phone, for example, was easily dismissed when Pichai pointed out that the phone was an iPhone.
And Google had an ace up its sleeve: unlike Facebook’s CEO, Pichai usually comes across as friendly, well-intentioned, and above all, human—in part because of his extraordinary life story (he grew up sleeping on the floor of a tiny two-room house in India). He seems avuncular, given to sweaters and self-deprecating comments. As friendly as Zuckerberg might be in one-on-one situations, he often comes off as emotionless in group settings, which plays into the popular view that the social network is a misinformation engine run by robots and robot-like humans. Zuckerberg also had some difficulty during his April hearing responding to questions about the company’s data collection policies, and had to promise to get back to Congress later with answers, whereas Pichai never seemed rattled (in part because none of them were very detailed).
There were a few actual tough questions for Pichai, including some about the company’s reported plans to move back into China with a censored version of its search engine, a project codenamed Dragonfly. Google has come under significant pressure for this potential move, including an internal protest involving hundreds of employees. Pichai brushed off concerns that Google’s proposed partnership with China’s repressive regime would ramp up the country’s already aggressive digital surveillance of its citizens and embolden other totalitarian states by saying there “are no plans right now” to re-enter China. In fact, Dragonfly at one point reportedly had more than 100 staffers working on it, and The Intercept has said the project is ready to launch and that Google is committed to rolling it out as soon as it can get China to agree.
In the end, much like other hearings into Google, Twitter, and Facebook, the congressional Q&A was a missed opportunity to hold the search giant accountable for things that are actually important—such as the tracking of smartphone users even if they have actively chosen to turn location services off. Instead, members of the House opted for self-aggrandizement and questions that served mostly to illustrate how little they understand about either search specifically or technology in general.
Here’s more on Google and its approach to privacy, misinformation and China:
- Hoax Tube: If members of Congress wanted to ask a tough question of Google, they might have asked about YouTube’s propensity for recommending conspiracy theory videos, something a former Google engineer spoke to CJR about earlier this year.
- Hate Tube: A Washington Post investigation found that despite Google’s promises to clean up YouTube, the video site still hosts hateful videos, including those expressing racist, anti-Semitic and white supremacist views.
- Friends With Benefits: Wired magazine obtained leaked audio of a meeting from earlier this year in which Google’s director of public policy talked about how the company had reached out to Republican groups and conservative leaders, and how this was starting to pay off for the company in Washington.
- Search and Surveil: Mia Shuang Li, a former Beijing-based reporter, has written an analysis for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism about how Google’s re-entry into China would help expand the regime’s surveillance of its citizens.
- Google Minus: No one brought it up at the Google hearing, but the day before Pichai appeared, the company announced it had found a security vulnerability that could have exposed private personal data belonging to more than 50 million users of its ill-fated Google+ social network.
Other notable stories:
- A New York Times feature looks at the impact of the opioid crisis on vulnerable addicts, many of them mothers, including some who appear in videos posted to social media of them overdosing in public.
- Verizon admits that its media ambitions got the better of it, taking a $4.6-billion writedown on its Oath subsidiary. That’s about half the previous value of the unit, which includes AOL, Yahoo, and HuffPost.
- The student newspaper at the University of Michigan, the Michigan Daily, published an in-depth investigation of a music instructor at the school, including evidence of multiple cases of sexual harassment going back 40 years.
- A controversial Bloomberg investigation into alleged Chinese hacking of motherboards has come under further criticism, with motherboard maker Supermicro saying a third-party investigation found no evidence of such a hack.
- Cherie Hu writes for CJR about how music critics are lamenting the arrival of an algorithm-driven world in which musicians try to duplicate proven predetermined musical formulas instead of engaging in real creativity.
- Newspaper chain McClatchy said in order to cut costs, it is consolidating the design and copy-editing functions for its 30 newspapers in a single hub located in North Carolina. About 30 staffers have been offered the opportunity to work remotely.
- A Pew Center survey found that for the first time since it has been doing its surveys, more people say they get the news from social media than say they get it from print newspapers. Social media and digital news sites are the number one source of news for those under 50, while TV is still the main source for those over 50.
- Writers and editors at the newly-unionized online magazine Slate have voted in favor of a strike, although they haven’t chosen a date. The union is asking for cost of living increases and is also protesting an attempt to make union dues optional.
Correction: A previous version of this newsletter said that 30 people affected by McClatchy’s centralization of its design and copy desks would lose their jobs, but they have been offered the opportunity to work remotely.