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Sundar Pichai has been acting like Alphabet’s top leader in Washington for more than a year. Now, it’s official.
Alphabet CEO Larry Page and President Sergey Brin made a surprise announcement yesterday that they are stepping away from day-to-day operations at the company they co-founded, my colleague Greg Bensinger reports. They’re handing the reins over to Pichai, thrusting the Google CEO into the top role at Alphabet at perhaps the most critical juncture in its 21-year-history. The company is confronting broad political backlash over potentially anti-competitive behavior, its data collection practices and even election security, among other controversies.
But Pichai’s new job title will probably have little immediate effect on the company’s political battles. He’s already been on the front lines and weathering the techlash in Washington in the absence of Page, who he reported to until yesterday.
Page was largely missing in action in Washington for more than a year. Senators tore him apart last September when he was a no-show at an Intelligence Committee hearing with Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey.
Pichai — who also declined to testify at that hearing — was left to clean up the mess solo. He held quiet meetings with members of Congress, the White House and Pentagon officials to smooth things over. He was the executive the company later sent to Washington for a Capitol Hill grilling. President Trump even targeted Pichai personally in tweets over the summer as he attacked Google, without evidence, for being biased against conservatives.
Pichai has also been leading the company's annual developer conference and quarterly investor call, Greg notes.
The new Alphabet CEO has “effectively been the spokesperson for Google and for Alphabet for a while now,” Alan Davidson, who opened Google's Washington office in 2005 and now serves as Mozilla vice president of global policy, trust and security, told me in an interview.
Pichai’s treatment in Washington hasn’t been all that different from other embattled tech titans, like Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey. The only distinction was that unlike those executives, Pichai didn’t have the top role in the company’s organization chart.
But he was overseeing the products regulators are most worried about, including YouTube as well as the company’s search and advertising businesses. Alphabet, the Google parent company established in 2015, encompasses a much wider range of businesses, including the self-driving car division Waymo, the smart-home appliance maker Nest and other “moonshot initiatives.” But regulators have largely not paid attention to the company's organizational structure.
“Regulators have seen Google and Alphabet as largely synonymous,” Davidson said. “This move is not going to change any of that.”
Page will not have an operational role at the company for the first time since Google's founding, though he and Brin will retain their board seats and company shares. The announcement marks the end of an era, especially because the two co-founders played an integral role in shaping the values that have defined the company politically, Davidson said.
“They played pivotal role in deciding what Google stood for," he said.
They also shaped the company's unique corporate culture — which was widely celebrated until recent years, as divisions between employees and management broke out over issues ranging from the company's work with the Pentagon to its handling of sexual harassment claims.
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: Genius Media Group is suing Google for lifting lyrics from its site and engaging in what it claims amounts to anti-competitive practices, the Wall Street Journal's Robert McMillan reports. The lawsuit puts a spotlight on how the search giant can stymie smaller rivals as regulators open antitrust probes into Google and other tech titans.
The lawsuit seeks $50 million in combined minimum damages from Google and LyricFind, the company that provides lyrics for Google's information panels on its search page. Genius alleges that its search traffic plummeted after Google began publishing lyrics on its search results page and that Google and LyricFind violated the website's terms of service. The company found more than 1,000 instances of its watermarked lyrics appearing on Google's website since August. In one instance, when Google posted lyrics directly to its search page, site traffic to Genius's lyrics page plummeted 70 percent.
Yelp and Trip Advisor have also publicly accused Google of favoring its own content in search results to stifle competition.
NIBBLES: Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has been one of the loudest advocates for breaking up Big Techl. Now the Massachusetts Democrat is drafting legislation to strengthen antitrust law, bringing her battle with Silicon Valley to the Senate, The Information's Ashley Gold reports.
The legislation would give the regulators more authority to punish violations of antitrust laws, Ashley reports. A draft tentatively titled the"Anti-Monopoly and Competition Restoration Act" is circulating in Washington.
“Introducing a bill on antitrust would allow Warren to claim she is doing something while on the campaign trail about what she says is an excessive concentration of power among companies like Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Alphabet," Gold writes.
Warren's campaign previously released a plan outlining how she proposes to break up the tech giants, such as breaking off WhatsApp from Facebook. Her plan would also prevent companies like Amazon and Apple from peddling their own products or apps on the platforms they manage.
There's bipartisan support of greater antitrust scrutiny, especially as state attorneys general from both political parties open a flurry of antitrust investigations into tech giants. But any major overhaul of antitrust law is unlikely to pass as Congress is focused on an election year and the impeachment inquiry.
BYTES: YouTube reports that U.S. viewers spent 70 percent less time watching videos that advance conspiracies and other debunked theories following changes it made earlier this year, my colleague Greg Bensinger reports.
The Google-owned company didn't release additional figures, such as how much time viewers still spend on the videos or how often they're clicked.
YouTube now pushes users toward news sources and creators it deems “high-authority" when searching for news events, the company says. For instance, in searches for news events such as “Brexit,” 93 percent of the top 10 recommended videos are from creators YouTube deems “high-authority.” The company didn't disclose its sample size for that data, however. And many viewers of conspiracy content subscribe directly to the channels that promote it, Greg reports.
“There will always be content on YouTube that brushes up against our policies, but doesn’t quite cross the line,” YouTube said in the blog post. “We’ve been working to raise authoritative voices on YouTube and reduce the spread of borderline content and harmful misinformation.”
The company's efforts to reduce viewership of unreliable information follows significant criticism of its moderation policies. In January it adjusted its algorithms to reduce recommendations of unreliable content.
— News from the public sector:
-- Four recently fired Google employees announced their intent to file charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging they were fired in retaliation for organizing workers at the tech giant, Ryan Mac at BuzzFeed News reports. The complaint could spark a wide investigation into the search giant's labor practices as it attempts to crack down on internal unrest.
“We participated in legally protected labor organizing, fighting to improve workplace conditions for all Google workers,” Laurence Berland, Rebecca Rivers, Paul Duke and Sophie Waldman, the four fired employees, wrote in a letter posted on Medium. “Google didn’t respond by honoring its values, or abiding by the law. It responded like a large corporation more interested in revenue growth than in ensuring worker rights and ethical conduct.”
“We dismissed four individuals who were engaged in intentional and often repeated violations of our longstanding data security policies, including systematically accessing and disseminating other employees’ materials and work,” a Google representative told BuzzFeed. “No one has been dismissed for raising concerns or debating the company’s activities.”
An internal memo said that the employees were fired for searching, accessing and distributing information including the calendars of other employees outside the company, Bloomberg News reported last week.
— News from the private sector:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- Brian Barnard, senior adviser to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, will join Uber as senior manager of federal affairs, as first reported by Politico.
- ITI will partner with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) to discuss emerging trends and policy issues in the tech sector at the 2019 CHCI Tech Summit 2.0, happening at the Newseum from 8am-5pm.
- The Open Technology Institute will host a panel on transparency reporting practices by technology companies at 12 p.m.
- The Senate Commerce Committee will host a hearing titled “Examining Legislative Proposals to Protect Consumer Data Privacy,” at 10 a.m.
— Coming up:
- The House Energy and Commerce Committee will host an Federal Communications Commission oversight hearing on Thursday at 10 a.m.
- The Senate Commerce subcommittee on communications, technology, innovation and the Internet will convene a hearing titled “The Evolution of Next-Generation Technologies: Implementing MOBILE NOW” on Thursday at 10 a.m.
- U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) will join the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation for a bipartisan conversation about facial recognition technology on Thursday at 8:45 a.m.