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Today is the last chance for the House Republican majority to publicly grill Google, one of their favorite targets in Big Tech.
Lawmakers have made clear they’re not going to let Google’s chief executive Sundar Pichai off easy when he appears before the House Judiciary Committee this morning. Outgoing Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said topics will range from potential anti-conservative bias to the company's plans to push into China.
“Google is a remarkable company that has accomplished a great deal,” Goodlatte told my colleague Tony Romm, “but given their size and their economic power, and some would argue political power based upon how search works and how YouTube works, there are a lot of questions to address.”
That makes today a major test for Pichai, as Tony pointed out in an excellent preview of the hearing. The soft-spoken political neophyte acknowledged during a White House visit last week that he had never stepped foot inside the Oval Office. But as he tries on the role of company spokesman, he’s battling controversies on all sides — potentially setting himself up for a more combative hearing than interrogations of other tech executives this year.
“It’s a challenging moment for our industry, but I’m privileged to be here today,” Pichai says in the written testimony he submitted to the committee.
Here’s your primer on the issues that have been worrying lawmakers and what Pichai will tell them:
Bias against conservatives
Republicans plan to interrogate the company on whether its algorithms are biased against conservative news sources, a charge the company has repeatedly vehemently denied. President Trump has also raised this issue, saying that the company’s search results for “Trump News” are “rigged” against him in a tweet this summer.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy teed it up in a tweet on Monday:
The Free World depends on a free Internet. We need to know that Google is on the side of the Free World (in particular, America) and will provide its valuable services free of political bias and censorship. #StopTheBias pic.twitter.com/Rfq8kbtYk0— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) December 10, 2018
It hasn’t helped that Google is largely secretive about how its algorithms work. And at a time when conservatives were already wary about the prevalence of liberal political views at Silicon Valley companies, a leaked video to Breitbart of a Google meeting after the 2016 election only amplified concerns that its employees had a left-leaning political bias that could influence their work.
At the same time, Google is under the same pressure as its social media peers to crack down on disinformation and hate speech on its platform YouTube. Some of the decisions the company has made, such as restricting Internet conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on YouTube, have contributed to the perception of bias on the platform.
Pichai will have to make the case that liberal employees at the Mountain View, Calif., company are not manipulating search results against any political group, despite their personal ideologies. He’ll also have to find a way to speak in plain English about how his company’s algorithms make decisions, even though the company says sharing too much detail would make it easier for people to manipulate where they stand in search results.
Here’s what Pichai says in his written testimony: “I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way. To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests. We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions — and we have no shortage of them among our own employees.”
Less than 24 hours before the hearing, Google revealed it had a new security bug affecting more than 52 million users, as Tony and Craig Timberg reported. Goodlatte confirmed to Tony that this latest security incident will be on the agenda today.
This latest security bug was reported after we learned the company kept secret for months a vulnerability that put the data of hundreds of thousands of Google accounts at risk, as we reported in October. The incident ignited calls for national privacy legislation, as well as a Federal Trade Commission probe.
Democrats have already promised to get tougher on privacy and data security issues in the next Congress, with some even calling for data breach penalties similar to ones in the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation. Their remarks could be a preview of what we can expect as they attempt to rein in Big Tech.
From Pichai’s testimony: “Protecting the privacy and security of our users has long been an essential part of our mission. We have invested an enormous amount of work over the years to bring choice, transparency, and control to our users. These values are built into every product we make.”
A bipartisan group of lawmakers have already pressed Google on its plans to push into China, due to the human rights implications of developing a censored version of a search engine. In another hearing this year focused on privacy, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) slammed Google for building a version of its search engine for China while citing ethical concerns as the reason for pulling out of an artificial intelligence contract with the U.S. government. Goodlatte tells Tony that China and the Pentagon contract, Project Maven, are both going to be raised in today's hearing.
Goodlatte told Tony that there are “lots of companies that do business in China and other places that have a totalitarian government.” With Google, though, where the “core is information sharing and searching for information and sharing ideas” he said having a different set of standards in China is a very problematic thing.”
Pichai did say recently that Google's internal tests of a censored search engine have been very promising. Yet hundreds of employees signed a public letter demanding the company halt its work on the project. Even John Hennessy, the chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, has said he’s conflicted on the strategy. Prepare for tense exchanges on this issue at a time when many in the U.S. government see themselves in a technology arms race against China.
From Pichai’s testimony: Nothing. The written testimony does not mention China once, though Pichai will say, “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.”
Trump said in a November interview that Google — as well as Amazon and Facebook — are being looked at for antitrust violations.
The FTC investigated Google during the Obama administration over how it displays search results — but it did not find an antitrust violation. Some U.S. lawmakers, such as Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), want to see the United States reopen that probe. Europe has been far more active on antitrust, hitting Google with a $5 billion fine earlier this year.
Goodlatte previously told my colleague Tony that when lawmakers met with Pichai in November, they “served notice” to him to expect questions on antitrust. Ahead of the hearing, several Republicans have noted that Google handles roughly 90 percent of world's searches online. Yesterday, Goodlatte wouldn't go so far as to say Google should face another investigation, but he said Congress should “continue to do oversight” on the company's footprint.
Expect Pichai to make the case that consumers have alternatives. He could double down on the antitrust argument the company has previously made, which is “competition is just a click away.”
From Pichai’s written testimony: Pichai makes no mention of antitrust or competition.
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BITS: Another issue Pichai may have to answer for today is the vast quantity of hateful, racist and conspiratorial videos that YouTube hosts. Critics in particular point to the fact that while Facebook and Twitter have been forced to publicly reckon with the use of their platforms to spread disinformation, hate and divisive content, YouTube and its parent company Google have escaped similar accountability, as The Washington Post’s Craig Timberg, Elizabeth Dwoskin, Tony Romm and Andrew Ba Tran reported. Some say the company needs to step up its moderation efforts, because "even though YouTube removes millions of videos on average each month, it is slow to identify troubling content and, when it does, is too permissive in what it allows to remain."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said that “whether it is deliberate or simply reckless, YouTube tends to tolerate messaging and narratives that seem to be at the very, very extreme end of the political spectrum, involving hatred, bias and bigotry.”
The sheer volume of content on the platform – 400 hours of video are uploaded every minute, according to the company – makes it hard for the company to root out hateful content. While the government maintains lists of terrorist groups to monitor them online, there’s “no equivalent list of hate groups or creators of hateful content,” according to my colleagues.
NIBBLES: A Chinese court ruled that Apple infringed on two Qualcomm patents and ordered Apple to stop selling older versions of its iPhones in China, the Wall Street Journal's Tripp Mickle reported. Qualcomm said in a news release that the patents relate to photo editing and managing applications via touch screen. “Apple continues to benefit from our intellectual property while refusing to compensate us,” Don Rosenberg, executive vice president and general counsel of Qualcomm, said in a statement. “These Court orders are further confirmation of the strength of Qualcomm’s vast patent portfolio.”
The court ordered Apple to stop sales of the iPhone models 6S, 6S Plus, 7, 7 Plus, 8, 8 Plus and X, according to Qualcomm. “The Nov. 30 decision by a Chinese court, which doesn’t apply to new iPhone models launched this year, is the first in the world’s largest smartphone market that seeks to curtail iPhone sales in the country,” the Journal's Mickle wrote. “Apple said its full portfolio of iPhones in China remain on sale, and that it plans to appeal the court’s decision.”
BYTES: GoPro plans to move most of its production of cameras destined for the U.S. market out of China by summer 2019 as the trade dispute between Washington and Beijing continues, the company announced in a news release. “Today's geopolitical business environment requires agility, and we're proactively addressing tariff concerns by moving most of our US-bound camera production out of China,” Brian McGee, executive vice president and chief financial officer of GoPro, said in a statement. “We believe this diversified approach to production can benefit our business regardless of tariff implications.”
The company's statement did not specify where GoPro intends to move the production of its U.S.-bound cameras. However, production of cameras for other countries will remain in China, GoPro said. “GoPro could provide an early look of the post-‘Make America Great’ tech supply chain, where your gadget is made in Vietnam or Indonesia, instead of China,” Joe Wittine, an analyst at Longbow Research, told Bloomberg News's Krista Gmelich and Selina Wang.
-- Amazon.com's move to build its own computer chips could help the company save money — and it may also spell trouble for Intel. Amazon's goal isn't to sell the chip to customers but instead to use it in its data centers' servers, according to the New York Times's Cade Metz. “The homegrown chip also gives Amazon bargaining power with Intel, which hasn’t had much competition in the server market in recent years,” Metz wrote. “The internet company will still buy from Intel because it would be difficult to build all the chips it needed on its own. But now it will have options.” (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
— Verizon said more than 10,000 employees have accepted a buyout offer as the company prepares to invest in 5G. The buyout, which was announced in September, “offered eligible employees and managers up to 60 weeks of salary, bonus and benefits, depending on length of service,” CNBC's Sara Salinas reported. “End dates for employees who accepted the deal range from year-end 2018 to June 2019.”
— More technology news from the private sector:
— The European Union's competition chief is leaving the door open to review Apple Pay. “EU regulators looked into Apple’s mobile payment service and found it was not market dominant but they could review it again if they receive formal complaints, Europe’s antitrust chief said on Monday,” Reuters's Foo Yun Chee wrote. “In an interview with Reuters, European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager also signaled that Google and Amazon would remain very much on her radar until the end of her mandate late next year.”
— LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman is planning to invest in an independent voter database, a project that top leaders of the Democratic National Committee consider an “existential threat” to the party, Politico’s Alex Thompson reported. “With tens of millions of dollars at their disposal, the people behind Hoffman-backed project could eventually create their own voter file, making the Democratic Party’s file less valuable,” according to Politico. “That process, however, would likely take several years and would be nearly impossible to complete by the 2020 election.” Several former Obama administration officials are also working on the independent voter data project.
— More technology news from the public sector:
— Google employees are expressing new demands to address labor disputes. In the wake of walkouts at Google offices around the world last month to protest claims of sexual harassment and inequality, a group of Google employees now seeks to eradicate forced arbitration within the tech industry as a whole, according to TechCrunch's Megan Rose Dickey.
The employees are “demanding an end to forced arbitration, as it relates to any case of discrimination, across the entire industry,” TechCrunch reported. Recode's Shirin Ghaffary reported that organizers at Google said that “they’ve heard from tech workers at over 15 other major tech companies about their experiences with forced arbitration” since the Google walkout took place.
— More news about tech workforce issues:
— A New York Times investigation exposed how some businesses receive and sell detailed user location data, prompting several Democratic lawmakers to call for Congress to pass privacy legislation. Their remarks are a preview of the aggressive approach the party wants to take on privacy next year.
From Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.):
This is stalking! No consumer 'consents' to such an egregious invasion. I will be calling for an investigation into the companies responsible & pushing for federal privacy rules that end this dangerous surveillance.— Richard Blumenthal (@SenBlumenthal) December 10, 2018
From Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.):
We must give people power over their data & make sure companies use plain language to explain how they are using the personal information of their users. Congress should pass my bipartisan privacy legislation that helps hold tech companies accountable.https://t.co/LPmR8zrlbx— Amy Klobuchar (@amyklobuchar) December 10, 2018
From Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.):
NEW from @nytimes: troubling new details about how ad companies are using location data to track Americans. Corporations are failing to take responsibility for the misuse & abuse of the public’s data. It’s time for Congress to step up protect Americans’ privacy. https://t.co/sU0ImsWDhq— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) December 10, 2018
From Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.):
🎵 They see where you were sleeping. They know if you’re awake. Your apps, they could be bad or good, but pass a privacy law for goodness sake. 🎵— Ed Markey (@SenMarkey) December 10, 2018
From Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.):
Jaw-dropping evidence that Americans are being kept in the dark about the personal data companies are collecting, what’s being done with it, and how much that data is worth. Consumers are paying with their data, but have no way to find out if they're getting a fair deal. https://t.co/JJLYdmS5fN— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) December 10, 2018
Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, one of the Times reporters who published the investigation, said “there isn’t much you can do to figure out if you’ve been tracked.”
The industry is opaque and largely unregulated, so there isn’t much you can do to figure out if you’ve been tracked. But you can take steps to limit the location data shared by your phone. We provide some tips here. /endhttps://t.co/T9PMWFMzxk— Jennifer Valentino-DeVries (@jenvalentino) December 10, 2018
— Motherboard's Jason Koebler published a piece titled “Delete All Your Apps” following the publication of the New York Times investigation into the collection of users' data location. “It might be time to get rid of all the free single-use apps that are essentially re-sized websites,” Koebler wrote. “Generally speaking, it is safer, privacywise, to access your data on a browser, even if it’s more inconvenient. On second thought, it may be time to delete all your apps and start over using only apps that respect your privacy and that have sustainable business models that don’t rely on monetizing your data.”
I just deleted Facebook, Instagram, Google Maps, and my weather app. Currently figuring out what else I can delete but probably I will just delete everything that I don't actively pay for— Jason Koebler (@jason_koebler) December 10, 2018
In other news that's making a buzz:
— Eddie Lazarus will join Sonos as chief legal officer, the company announced in a statement.
— Today in funding news:
- Google's Pichai testifies before the House Judiciary Committee.
- House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on the Defense Department's “artificial intelligence structure, investments, and applications.”
- House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing titled “RAY BAUM’S Act: A bipartisan foundation for bridging the digital divide.”
- The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation hosts a discussion titled “Is ‘Big Tech’ Now Synonymous With Big Oil or Big Tobacco?” in Washington tomorrow.
- The Washington Post holds a Technology 202 Live event on technology, mobility and the future of cities on Thursday.
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