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The big Google hearing just gave us a sneak peek at how Democrats plan to rein in Big Tech in the next Congress
Here’s a hint: It’s not how Republicans tried to do it yesterday. As Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee grilled chief executive Sundar Pichai on anti-conservative bias in search results, Democrats dismissed such allegations as a "fantasy" and signaled they are serious about passing a privacy bill, getting tough on election security and curtailing disinformation campaigns.
Jerrold Nadler, the ranking Democrat who will likely chair the House Judiciary Committee next year, accused Republicans of letting “delusions of the far right” distract them.
"Unfortunately, in this our fourth hearing devoted to entirely fictitious allegations of conservative -- of anti-conservative bias of internet companies, we will waste more time and more taxpayer money and elevating well-worn right-wing conspiracy theories instead of concentrating the substantive questions and issues that should be the focus of our hearings," Nadler said. "Our committee can and must and will do better."
A year of fiery exchanges in hearing rooms with Silicon Valley executives has not yet resulted in any meaningful new laws targeting Silicon Valley companies. Even Republicans' tough talk about political bias and potential antitrust violations has not translated to much action. Soon it'll be Democrats' turn, and they made clear they are turning a new page: “I look forward next year to working with you on some of the very serious questions we face,” Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) told Pichai. “It’s pretty obvious bias against conservative voices is not one of them.”
Tough privacy legislation is already emerging as a top priority. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) pressed Pichai on whether it's time for a national privacy law and how it should compare to the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation.
Technology companies are ready to come to the table as an alternative to dealing with a patchwork of state laws. Pichai said his company supports national privacy legislation -- and even indicated he would be open to something similar to GDPR in the United States. Calling it a “well-crafted piece of legislation," Pichai said there is “some value for companies to have consistent global regulation."
Another issue likely to be top of mind for Democrats: Tougher mandates for companies to notify consumers when they are breached. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) asked Pichai how Americans can trust their personally identifiable information is safe with Google -- which announced on Monday it had a security bug on its Google service that may have affected the personal information of about 52 million people. Earlier this year, lawmakers criticized the company for failing to disclose another security vulnerability for months, partially due to fears of regulatory scrutiny.
Johnson pressed Pichai on whether Google was being transparent enough about its data security practices. “We always think there is more to do,” Pichai said. “It's an area which is going to be an ongoing area of effort for us.”
But lawmakers also have a lot of work to do. Democrats have big ambitions to crack down on technology companies, but there wasn't a clear consensus on concrete steps they plan to take. And the exchanges with Pichai highlighted how they still seem to be learning about the issues, such as content moderation.
This lack of tech savvy means they are still not drilling down enough into the details to get real answers. It allowed Pichai to largely sail through some of the toughest questions on privacy.
And Pichai was able to answer in broad terms without much follow up, such as when lawmakers tried to address the spread of conspiracy theories and hate speech on YouTube, a Google platform. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) asked if Google was prepared to keep up with the avalanche of hate-mongering theories, after a recent Washington Post article said YouTube continued to allow "racists, anti-Semites and proponents of other extremist views to use the platform as an online library for spreading their ideas."
“We do grapple with difficult issues, maybe we have to look at it on a video-by-video basis,” Pichai said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure YouTube is a platform for freedom of expression but it’s responsible and contributes positively to society.
Pichai did not offer much on election security, either. Swalwell asked what the company was doing to address Russian interference in the political system moving forward. “Our efforts have been pretty successful so far,” Pichai said. “But it's an area where it's never enough.”
Republicans were not immune to this problem. For instance, in a theatrical exchange, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) held up his iPhone and asked Pichai if Google tracked his movements. Pichai got away with saying he couldn't answer the question because he didn't have enough information on his specific phone settings. However, Poe may have gotten more details if he tried to pin Pichai on what kinds of location data Google services collect on people's phones.
Bloomberg's Shira Ovide noted these broad exchanges were not so helpful to solving complex problems:
I'm tired of carefully asked questions, carefully chosen responses (or dodges) and point tallies for whether a company or a committee "won" a hearing. This is not a jury trial. This is policy making involving the most influential forces in the world.— Shira Ovide (@ShiraOvide) December 11, 2018
But Democrats may get another chance soon, as they are already calling for more hearings with Silicon Valley leaders. Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will likely chair the antitrust subcommittee, says he wants Pichai back next year.
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BITS: Pichai said in an interview with The Post after the hearing that Google is engaged in an internal effort to develop a product for China -- and it might not be a search engine. “For us, this work had many purposes. Can we explore and serve users in China, in areas like education and health care?” he said. “We may not end up doing search. We’re trying to understand a market.”
During the hearing, lawmakers from both parties warned Pichai about developing a search engine that would abide by China’s censorship regime, The Post's Tony Romm and Craig Timberg reported. “Pichai, who acknowledged in questioning from lawmakers that roughly 100 people have worked on the project but repeatedly said Google currently has ‘no plans’ to offer a new product for China, later told the Post that it was too soon to put any parameters on the effort."
Cicilline asked Pichai if he would “rule out launching a tool for surveillance and censorship in China” while he serves as chief executive of Google. Pichai would not, saying instead it is the company's mission “to explore possibilities to give users access to information.” Cicilline later told Bloomberg he was "disappointed" with Google's answers on China.
NIBBLES: Outgoing House Committee Judiciary Chair Bob Goodlatte still thinks Google is biased against conservatives, saying Pichai's testimony on the issue "was not very helpful." In an interview with Bloomberg, he pointed to an incident earlier this year where the search engine labeled the California Republican Party as Nazis as an example of the problem. "Whether it's systemic bias or simply a flaw in their algorithms, it's a serious issue they need to address," Goodlatte said.
Pichai sought to dispel claims that Google harbors bias against conservative views and content on its platforms. “Pichai insisted that Google is careful to avoid political bias in its search engine and other products,” Tony and Craig reported from the hearing. But Republican lawmakers were not persuaded. From Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.): “The muting of conservative voices by Internet platforms has intensified, especially during the presidency of Donald Trump.”
In order to counter claims that Google engineers manipulate online search results, Lofgren, a Democrat, also asked Pichai to explain why a photo of Trump appeared in the results after she entered the word “idiot” in the company's image search engine:
BYTES: Though lawmakers displayed a better grasp on technology issues than at the April hearing with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, they still had a few questions that seemed better suited for tech support than for the leader of one of the world's most valuable companies.
After Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) voiced concerns about a photo and comments that appeared on his granddaughter's iPhone as she was playing a game on the device, Pichai replied: “Congressman, iPhone is made by a different company.” King then said that “it might have been an Android. It's just, it was a hand-me-down of some kind.”
Rep. Steve King: "How does that show up on a 7-year old's iPhone who's playing a kid's game?"— CSPAN (@cspan) December 11, 2018
Google CEO Sundar Pichai: ""Congressman, iPhone is made by a different company…"
Watch full hearing here: https://t.co/w6Qhg7xb5b pic.twitter.com/4lT8Daj5yn
And Pichai's answer that Google would need to know more about Rep. Poe's phone settings to answer his questions about location tracking did not sit well with the congressman. “It's not a trick question,” Poe said. “You know, you make $100 million a year. You ought to be able to answer that question.”
From BuzzFeed News's Eric Morrow:
Rep. Poe spent a minute asking Sundar Pichai if Google tracks him through his iPhone. Pichai tries to explain it would depend on what apps and permissions he has, but Poe kept yelling "It's either yes or no!" pic.twitter.com/4VLkR9hZKA— Eric Morrow (@morroweric) December 11, 2018
From my colleague Tony:
Poe wants to be dramatic with this exchange asking about Google tracking. Pichai is an engineer who's saying, essentially, it depends on his settings. That nuance isn't really gonna work with this sort of political theater.— Tony Romm (@TonyRomm) December 11, 2018
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) had this question for the Google "apparatus."
Here's it is! Cohen asks Pichai if Google should have an "online school people could go to, with a Google representative, and you can log in and ask questions, and not like Comcast where you get put on hold for 30 minutes... and talk to somebody and say, how do i do this?"— Tony Romm (@TonyRomm) December 11, 2018
From NBC News's Dylan Byers:
Rep. Cohen wants Pichai to look into overuse of conservative news results … says he was on MSNBC four times and results for his name were all conservative outlets like Daily Caller, Breitbart, etc.— Dylan Byers (@DylanByers) December 11, 2018
When Rep. Cohen gets his Google school lets make sure they teach him about SEO
-- Tuesday's hearing "had the trappings of a modern Washington circus," my colleague Drew Harwell wrote yesterday.
"A man dressed as the mascot of the game Monopoly, Rich Uncle Pennybags, sat quietly in the crowd, peering through a monocle. Another protester opened the hearing-room doors and flashed a sign with Google’s name in the Chinese flag — a silent criticism of the company’s ongoing development of products that could align with the desires of the surveillance state," he wrote.
— Ian Madrigal, a.k.a. “Monopoly Man,” was in attendance at the Google hearing. “Madrigal, who recently changed their name from Amanda Werner and uses gender neutral pronouns, said in a statement on Twitter that they were holding a ‘Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card’ at the Google hearing,” CNBC's Lauren Feiner reported. “Madrigal is a strategy director for Revolution Messaging, the firm run by Keegan Goudiss, Bernie Sanders' director of digital advertising during the 2016 election.”
— "The hearing was crashed by longtime Trump crony Roger Stone and far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who called Google 'the most horrible corporation on earth' to anyone in the halls willing to listen," Drew writes. Jones tracked Pichai down the Capitol building hallways as the Google executive walked to the hearing, yelling that the CEO had "lied to Congress," the Hill's Jacqueline Thomsen reported.
From the New York Times's Daisuke Wakabayashi:
Alex Jones storms through the hallways outside the google ceo hearing chanting “Google is Evil!!” When a police officer told him to quiet down, he says Sundar “is trying to take away my free speech and lying about it” pic.twitter.com/YvRG3oqP0S— Daisuke Wakabayashi (@daiwaka) December 11, 2018
From Politico's Cristiano Lima:
Alex Jones and Roger Stone are in the building for the Google hearing. "Sundar and Google are absolutely the most horrible corporation on earth," he says. pic.twitter.com/wLHBCEILHA— Cristiano Lima (@viaCristiano) December 11, 2018
The Uber logo is seen at the second annual Uber Elevate Summit in Los Angeles on May 8. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
— Sidecar, a defunct ride-hailing company, is suing Uber. “The lawsuit, filed in U.S. district court in San Francisco on Tuesday morning, claims ‘Uber became hell-bent on stifling competition from competing ride-hailing apps,’ and used subsidies and made fake ride requests to competitors in a bid to dominate the market,” according to Reuters's Heather Somerville. “Sidecar went out of business in December 2015 and sold its assets to General Motors Co in 2016.”
— More technology news from the private sector:
— A measure to restore net neutrality rules still lacks 38 votes in the House of Representatives. “The Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution, already approved by the Senate, would reverse the Federal Communications Commission's repeal of net neutrality rules,” Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin reported. “But 218 signatures from US representatives (a majority) are needed to force a full vote in the House before Congress adjourns at the end of the year.” The measure has gathered support from 180 House members so far, according to Brodkin.
- Federal Trade Commission hearing on data security.
- The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation hosts a discussion titled “Is ‘Big Tech’ Now Synonymous With Big Oil or Big Tobacco?” in Washington.
- The Washington Post holds a Technology 202 Live event on technology, mobility and the future of cities tomorrow.
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