Tap ‘Idiot’ and get ‘Trump’, news is bad and my phone’s a spy: Lawmakers complain to Google CEO
Pichai was hauled before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday to answer questions about his company’s perceived liberal bias, data collection and privacy policies, and its planned expansion into China. The CEO was all smiles, and opened by promising to “build products worthy of the trust users place in us,” before the floor was given to lawmakers’ questions.
From the ideological to the absurd, these questions quickly went off the beaten track.
In a strange move for a Democrat, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California) had a bone to pick with Pichai on behalf of President Trump. Why, she asked, did Google return an image of Trump when she searched for the word “Idiot”?
Zoe Lofgren points out that this is what you get if you google "idiot." pic.twitter.com/u4Jo5Hkmeo— Timothy B. Lee (@binarybits) December 11, 2018
Pichai attempted to break down how Google’s algorithms work, but Lofgren was flummoxed. The California lawmaker said she looks forward to working with Pichai on a range of issues, but concluded “it’s pretty obvious that bias against conservative voices is not one of them.”
Tennessee Democrat Rep. Steve Cohen then asked Pichai an unusual –though slightly touching– question. Why doesn’t Google introduce a phone helpline to explain to inexperienced users how to perform a simple Google search?
Cohen’s request seemed to be based on his own difficulties getting to grips with the search engine. The 69-year-old lawmaker demanded to know why four of his appearances on MSNBC didn’t appear when he searched his own name followed by “news.” Instead, Cohen only found critical articles from Breitbart and the Daily Caller – ironically, themselves two right-wing sites that have complained about unfair treatment from Google.
“It’s hard for me to fathom being on MSNBC for like eight minutes, each show, four times, and there’s more content on Breitbart news than MSNBC,” he said. “If you’d let me know about that I’d appreciate it.”
Cohen’s rambling line of questioning was mocked online. “Don’t make policies on things you don’t understand,” read one angry Twitter comment.
Rep. Steve Cohen, omg:"I use your apparatus often. Your search engine.""Have you considered having an online school" to teach people how to use google— Joe Perticone (@JoePerticone) December 11, 2018
Rep. Steve Cohen complaining to the CEO of Google during a House Judiciary Committee meeting that he searched his own name, but didn't like the articles that came up, and then demanding Google do something about it is an absolutely perfect 2018 moment.— Aaron Sankin (@ASankin) December 11, 2018
Not to be outdone, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) whipped out his iPhone and waved it in front of the hearing, demanding to know whether it could track his position as he moved across the room.
Pichai replied that he couldn’t tell for sure without seeing the phone and its settings, but Poe wasn’t satisfied.
“It’s not a trick question!” the indignant Republican responded. “You make $100 million a year, you ought to be able to answer that question.”
“I’m shocked you don’t know,” he concluded.
"You make $100M a year, you ought to know the answer to this question” — Rep. Ted Poe berates @sundarpichai after Poe asks a question about tracking an iPhone’s location — a question that the Google CEO simply can’t answer without more information. This hearing is a mess...— David Gilbert (@daithaigilbert) December 11, 2018
Despite their inability to grasp the technical details, the committee’s questions were based on serious concerns. Allegations of liberal bias have dogged Google (and other Silicon Valley tech titans) since the 2016 election, with some staff at the firm admitting to some blatant anti-Trump and anti-conservative agendas.
If there's one thing that the Facebook hearing & #GoogleHearing are making emphatically clear, it's that most of Congress has no f*cking clue how tech works. @RepCohen just called an "app" an apparatus. pic.twitter.com/2p7sAz6md1— Terena Bell (@TerenaBell) December 11, 2018
Rep. Poe’s line of questioning too was a pertinent –though technically flawed– one. A coalition of European consumer agencies filed a complaint last month accusing Google of “tricking” users into sharing their location data, by burying the opt-out button deep in its settings menu and using “misleading wording” to hoodwink users into signing away their privacy.
Away from Capitol Hill, concern over Google’s vast data-collection powers has been raised by watchdogs, journalists and civil libertarians in the US and EU. In his opening statement on Tuesday, committee chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) summed up these concerns.
“Google is able to collect an amount of information about its users that would even make the NSA blush,” he said. “Americans have no idea the sheer volume of information that is collected.”
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