The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Google needs regulation. Republicans are too busy screaming about bias.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai appears before the House Judiciary Committee on.
Google chief executive Sundar Pichai appears before the House Judiciary Committee on. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

GOOGLE CHIEF executive Sundar Pichai’s appearance before Congress on Tuesday augured an era of increased scrutiny for technology companies. The hearing was also a swan song for a Republican majority that has chosen to prioritize political posturing over more pressing issues about how powerful firms manage consumer data, and how they wield their influence in the world.

Members of the conservative majority on the House Judiciary Committee spent much of their time hammering Mr. Pichai with baseless accusations that Google rigs its search results to censor conservative content. Black-box algorithms will inevitably prioritize some content over other content, and to the extent companies can be transparent about how their systems work, they should be. But a single-minded and mindless focus on a nonexistent left-wing conspiracy within Google has had the paradoxical effect of discouraging companies from properly policing their platforms, as they hesitate to remove content that should be removed for fear of unfounded criticism. In a visit to The Post after his hearing, Mr. Pichai said the moderation of misinformation and domestic extremism on YouTube is an area where Google could improve. He also cautioned, fairly, that such actions must be weighed against the importance of free speech.

The bias obsession has distracted from the more important subjects that Congress has failed to address these past two years. That seems likely to change when Democrats take control of the House in January.

The first subject likely to draw more attention is privacy. Mr. Pichai was pressed to lay out, piece by piece, each treasure in the trove of information his company collects on consumers, from name to age to address to minute-by-minute location — mostly used for targeted advertising. Google has gotten ahead of the impending debate by signaling its support for a federal privacy framework, but it’s up to lawmakers to turn vague protection principles into meaningful policy. That means ensuring users know and have some say in what data companies are collecting from them, exactly what it is being used for and who else is getting to see it.

Committee members also expressed interest in examining Google’s potential anticompetitive behavior. The incoming chairman of the antitrust subcommittee, Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), indicated his interest in “structural antitrust,” code for corporate breakups. But the broader appetite for so radical a move is probably limited. Initially, Google seems more likely to face increased attention to charges that it systemically downranks local search results from its competitors.

Finally, legislators lambasted Mr. Pichai over Project Dragonfly, Google’s exploratory effort to launch a search engine in China. Mr. Pichai insisted time and time again that Google has “no plans” to reenter the Chinese market, but he refused to rule out the possibility of a product that would aid in government repression and surveillance.

These questions represent only a start at confronting Google’s role in society and how lawmakers might regulate it. Fewer minutes spent harping on bias allegations might have allowed time for further-reaching inquiries. Hopefully, that’s what the new year will bring.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Why Republicans pretend that Google searches are biased against them

Sarah Sewall: Google was working on two ethically questionable projects. It quit the wrong one.

The Post’s View: Does ‘don’t be evil’ still apply, Google?

The Post’s View: Google is treading a dangerous path in China

Chen Guangcheng: Google is on the verge of making a huge mistake with China