Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) had a seemingly simple question for Google CEO Sundar Pichai today at a congressional hearing: Could my phone track if I stood up and moved across the room?
The line of questioning was relevant, given that the New York Times had just published an investigation the day before about how dozens of apps collect and store location data in ways that average users might not be aware of.
There was jut one problem — Rep. Poe was holding up what appeared to be an iPhone, not an Android phone. Pichai tried to explain that it depended upon whether Rep. Poe had any Google apps downloaded on his phone, and what the phone’s location settings were.
“It’s not a trick question — you make $100 million a year, you ought to be able to answer that question,” Poe responded.
Tuesday’s hearing was called to question Google about the ways it collects and use data, and how it filters search results. Many questions, like Rep. Poe’s, attempted to get an answer from Pichai in layman’s terms about how Google did just that. But many questions were phrased in a way that allowed Pichai to avoid giving a direct answer, or got wrong a fundamental aspect of how tech companies like Google collect data or write algorithms.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), for example, acknowledged that he doesn’t understand Google’s different privacy and location settings, and asked Pichai if the company had ever considered creating an “online school” that users could go to to ask questions of a Google representative. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) asked if Google had ever disciplined individual employees or groups of employees for manipulating search results. When Pichai responded that it wasn’t possible for individual employees to manipulate search results, Rep. Smith said he didn’t believe Pichai.
This was Pichai’s first time testifying publicly in front of Congress. He was previously called to testify in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee alongside Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, but declined the invitation. Many Senators ended up blasting Google during the hearing for the slight.
In prepared remarks, Pichai emphasized Google’s patriotism and dedication to the U.S. “It’s no coincidence that a company dedicated to the free flow of information was founded right here in the U.S.,” Pichai said. “As an American company, we cherish the values and freedoms that have allowed us to grow and serve so many users. I am proud to say we do work, and we will continue to work, with the government to keep our country safe and secure.”
Pichai’s testimony came as Google has faced criticism from employees and human rights groups over reports that it has been developing a censored search engine for the Chinese market, code-named Project Dragonfly. Google’s chief privacy officer Keith Enright was questioned by Congress about Project Dragonfly earlier in September.
However, only a handful of lawmakers questioned Pichai about Project Dragonfly. Pichai asserted that the company had no plans to launch a search engine in China, but after repeated questioning from Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), but acknowledged that the company has “undertaken an internal effort” to develop a product for China.
Some lawmakers complained about bias in Google’s products by bringing up their own search results — Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) complained that he couldn’t find any positive stories about the GOP’s repeal of the Affordable Care Act or its Tax Cuts and Jobs Act until the “third or fourth page of search results,” while Rep. Cohen wanted to know why articles conservative websites wrote about him, like the Daily Caller and Breitbart, appeared higher in search results than his appearances on MSNBC.
Conservative members of the committee spent much of their time questioning Pichai about how Google was dealing with what they perceived to be anti-conservative bias from the company. While liberal members also expressed concerns about how Google filters search results, they didn’t focus their lines of questioning on search results related to one particular group.
While members of both parties expressed concern about how Google collects data, no clear suggestions for regulations emerged from the hearing.
“Google is able to collect information about its amount of users that would even make the NSA blush,” House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) said in his opening statement. “I think it is fair to say that most Americans have no idea the sheer volume of detailed information that is collected.”