Google CEO Sundar Pichai Faces Privacy and Bias Questions in Congress

Google’s chief executive, in perhaps the most public display of lawmakers’ unease with his company’s influence, was grilled about everything from search result bias and the data Google collects about its users to plans for a censored service in China. Sundar Pichai, an engineer who rose through Google’s ranks to become its leader three years ago, faced more than three hours of questions from the House Judiciary Committee. Republicans expressed concerns about unfair treatment of conservatives, and lawmakers in both parties zeroed in on privacy issues. In his opening statement, Pichai said, “Even as we expand into new markets we never forget our American roots," and that Google cares about privacy and supports federal privacy legislation.

“Mr. Pichai, it was necessary to convene this hearing because of the widening gap of distrust between Silicon Valley and the American people,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). He is not a member of the Judiciary Committee but made a point of attending the hearing. “All of these topics—competition, censorship, bias, and others—point to one fundamental question that demands the nation’s attention,” Rep. McCarthy said. “Are America’s technology companies serving as instruments of freedom—or instruments of control?

A partisan divide quickly emerged. Committee Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) dismissed the fears of anti-conservative bias as “fact-free propaganda” and a “right-wing conspiracy theory.” Even if Google were politically biased, Ranking Member Nadler said, it would be within its rights as a private company. He cited the example of right-leaning media companies such as Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting.

Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) followed on Majority Leader MacCarthy's statement by saying that he was concerned that Google's power had the potential for wide-ranging abuse, including of free speech. He also said he was concerned that Google could be censoring conservative voices. Additionally, he raised concerns with Google’s privacy practices, a day after it revealed its latest data mishap: A security lapse that exposed personal information about more than 50 million users of Google+, the company’s soon-to-be shuttered social network. 

Drew Harwell wrote for the Washington Post that the hearing, "was designed from the jump as a scene of performative political outrage at Big Tech, which has spent much of the year as a punching bag over claims of anti-conservative bias. And like previous hearings involving Twitter chief Jack Dorsey and Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, Pichai’s hearing had the trappings of a modern Washington circus."

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