Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee this week--an appearance that lasted about three and a half hours. As anyone who watched Mark Zuckerberg's congressional testimony has already observed, the members of Congress we've elected to represent us seem uninformed about the basic working of the internet and the powerful companies that dominate it. Their strange questions--and the fact that many made speeches about what they saw as Google's anti-Conservative bias and barely asked questions at all--gave Pichai a free pass. He didn't have to explain himself much about the recent walkouts over sexual harassment, or the data that Google collects on users--even though the session was supposed to be about Google's data collection and use.
When it was over, several observers suggested on social media that the legislative branch of our government be barred from any further questioning of tech CEOs, simply to save them from embarrassment.
Here are some examples of why:
1. How does [hateful information about me] show up on a 7-year-old's iPhone?
Iowa representative Steve King (R) has a granddaughter who was playing a game on her mobile phone when apparently a political ad popped up that said such awful things about King that he didn't want to quote them into the record. (He has been accused of racism, anti-Semitism, and of supporting neo-Nazi groups, which he denies.)
When asked how the ad got there, Pichai answered, "Congressman, iPhone is made by a different company."
"It might have been an Android. It was a hand-me-down of some kind," King retorted, missing or ignoring the point that without knowing what the game was or what kinds of notifications were set on the phone there was no way anyone could answer his question.
"I'm happy to follow up when I understand the specifics," Pichai said.
2. If you Google the word idiot under Images, a picture of Donald Trump comes up ... How does search work so that would occur?
That softball question came from representative Zoe Lofgren (D) of California. Pichai, hearing the phrase "How does search work?" launched into a lengthy explanation of how Google crawls the internet and ranks results on the basis of 200 factors.
Both Pichai and Lofgren should have known that Trump's ranking in searches for "idiot" results from deliberate manipulation by Reddit users who upvoted a post containing his image and the word--compounded by media accounts of the phenomenon, which confirmed to Google's A.I. that the two terms should be connected. Neither of them mentioned it.
3. You have never sanctioned any employee for manipulating search results whatsoever. Is that the case?
Congressman Lamar Smith (R) of Texas asked this question--one that seemed to presume wrongdoing in the manner of the famous query "When did you stop beating your wife?"
Pichai explained that it would be impossible for any Google employee or even group of employees to manipulate search, because the process is so complex and has so many steps. "I disagree. I think humans can manipulate the process," said Smith, unconvinced.
4. Does Google now know the full extent to which its online platforms were exploited by Russian actors in the election two years ago?
Jerrold Nadler (D), a representative from New York, asked this, after citing media reports that Russians had spent "thousands of dollars" to buy ads on Google from "multiple accounts."
Yes, Pichai answered--Google had conducted a thorough investigation and found that in 2016 most Russian political ad spending came from two accounts, which had spent a total of $4,700. Note to Congress: If you're concerned about Russians manipulating U.S. elections, focus your attention on social media instead of search. On Facebook, for instance, Russians spent more than $100,000 on ads that reached 146 million Americans--and did even more damage by simply posting thousands of fake news items to the platform.
5. We do a search, and what comes up? Wikipedia!
This came from Texas representative Louie Gohmert (R), who used his five minutes to lament what he sees as Google's deeply ingrained Liberal bias rather than ask any questions. Gohmert complained that his chief of staff had updated his Wikipedia entry with annotated information every night for two weeks only to find her changes removed each morning. He did not seem to know that it's against Wikipedia's guidelines for someone to edit her employer's page.
6. I have an iPhone. If I go over there and sit with my Democrat friends, does Google track my movement?
Representative Ted Poe (R) of Texas asked this question, one of the few to address data gathering, the supposed topic of the inquiry. "Not by default," Pichai said. "There may be a Google service you have opted in to use."
This was the perfect moment for Poe to dig deeper into some of those "opt in" services that are universally used, such as Google search with location turned on and Google Maps. If his phone has either of those on it, Google can indeed track his movements, though perhaps not from one side of a room to another. But Poe chose instead to spend his limited time mocking Pichai for his answer. "It's not a trick question. You make $100 million a year. You ought to be able to answer that question," he insisted. "I'm shocked you don't know."
7. A significant portion of this hearing was a waste of time.
That observation came from Ted Lieu (D), a California representative, who noted that it was the fourth in "a series of ridiculous hearings." The reason these hearings are a waste of time, he said, is that the First Amendment of the Constitution protects the free speech rights of people and corporations, which would include search results. Even if Google were able to adjust its search results so as to favor Conservatives more, Congress can't legally compel it to do so.
In other words, the whole event was nothing but political theater. Maybe next time, our elected officials can learn a little bit about how the internet works so they can actually get something done.