The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress is about to grill Google’s CEO. Can Sundar Pichai handle the heat?

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai heads to the White House on Thursday for a meeting with President Trump, who apparently highlighted that the European Union has been tough on Google. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

Near the end of a meeting with technology executives at the White House last week, President Trump asked if any of them had ever stepped foot in the Oval Office. In a room that included the leaders of Oracle, Microsoft and IBM, one said he hadn’t: Google’s chief executive Sundar Pichai.

The moment, recalled by two people familiar with the gathering but not authorized to discuss it on the record, underscores the challenge facing the soft-spoken, 46-year-old Pichai, a political neophyte who is about to confront a barrage of questions about Google’s business practices in Washington.

After a year of avoiding the spotlight — and the political scrutiny that’s befallen his peers at Facebook and Twitter — Pichai is set to deliver his first-ever testimony to Congress on Tuesday. The appearance is shaping up to be a major test of Pichai’s skills in managing the company’s reputation at a time when several of Silicon Valley’s biggest names are in crisis — and when many of Google’s employees are in revolt.

For Pichai’s fellow tech executives, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter, their time inside the beltway has proved damaging. Facebook and Twitter still wrestle with near-daily questions about their platforms — and with whether they’ve harmed their users more than they’ve helped them. Pichai, an engineer who has virtually no political connections, is set to tread those same rough waters in front of the sharply divided House Judiciary Committee.

“This is the first time people have really seen Sundar in this kind of light,” said one former longtime Google employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity around the matter. “But people will be coming for them from all sides. … [He’s] trying on this role of being the chief public spokesman for Google.”

Google declined to comment for this story.

Pichai’s scheduled appearance comes at the request of House Republicans, who may launch a rhetorical fusillade at Google over allegations of anti-conservative bias. All year, party leaders have alleged the company limits the reach of conservatives’ content, especially on YouTube. Republicans even invited two pro-Trump video bloggers to testify about the matter at a fiery hearing earlier this year. The president similarly has adopted that line of attack: He previously accused Google of secretly engineering search results to show negative stories about him.

On Tuesday, Pichai plans to defend the company’s neutrality. “I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way,” he plans to say, according to prepared testimony. “To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests.”

But the upcoming hearing is expected to become a broader discussion about Google’s privacy practices, its ambitions in China and the size and reach of its search, advertising and mobile empires, according to some lawmakers on the panel. Pichai’s performance could shape early debate among members of Congress who are considering ways to more tightly regulate Silicon Valley.

Some lawmakers remain frustrated that Pichai and Larry Page, the leader of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, skipped testifying at a Senate hearing this year. Further adding to Google’s headaches, the company on Monday revealed another privacy mishap, announcing that the personal information of about 52 million users on its soon-to-be defunct social network, Google+, may have been exposed to developers. (The company said it did not detect any misuse of the data.)

“[Google] has been desperately avoiding oversight,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. “In effect, they wanted to avoid the spotlight and leave it to Facebook, which has been their M.O. They just try to keep their heads down and avoid any scrutiny.”

In a bid to keep Washington at bay, Google has relied on a prodigious political operation. The search giant has spent nearly $17 million so far this year to lobby its regulators — an amount that dwarfs its counterparts, according to lobbying disclosures. It deployed those consultants ahead of Tuesday’s hearing to gather intelligence in Congress on the questions Pichai could be asked, according to top aides of members on the House Judiciary Committee.

Pichai has done his own reconnaissance in meetings with panel lawmakers, the aides said. It was a new form of outreach for the Google executive, who has been as active in the nation’s capital as his fellow tech leaders. Apple chief executive Tim Cook, for example, has spent years building relationships with key Democrats and Republicans in Washington.

At the White House meeting last week on the U.S. government’s approach to artificial intelligence and the U.S. relationship with China, the two people familiar with the discussion said Trump noted that the European Union had been tough on Google, asking Pichai about the multibillion-dollar fine the region levied on the company for antitrust violations.

Pichai responded that it was only the first one, prompting those in the room to laugh, according to a person who attended the meeting. (Google has been fined twice by the European Union for violating competition rules.)

Among Google’s current and former employees, Pichai is viewed as a consensus-builder. He arrived at the company in 2004 as an engineer who helped manage Google’s search tools at a time when most of its users had been querying the Web on desktop computers, not smartphones.

In the years since, the Stanford-educated, Indian American engineer came to oversee Google’s most critical gambits — its Chrome web browser and its popular apps, then its Android operating system. He took over as Google’s chief executive in 2015 after Page restructured the tech giant and assumed the leadership of Alphabet.

“The times I met with him, he was soft-spoken, he was substance oriented,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democratic lawmaker from Silicon Valley. “Sundar has shown you don’t have to be the loudest voice to be the most effective voice.”

But Pichai’s ascent also coincided with a tectonic shift in public sentiment about Silicon Valley. Around the world, policymakers began to see how online platforms can be weaponized to disrupt elections, jeopardize privacy, and foster real-world hatred and violence. As the company pursued even more audacious endeavors — evolving from a search-and-advertising behemoth into an empire that produces self-driving cars and Internet-beaming balloons — questions about its business practices intensified, too.

"There was the notion, not just for Google but for tech generally, that we did no evil, and that we approached engineering and design with a sense of hope and optimism that was endemic to innovation. And now the world has shifted in a dramatic way,” said Dean Garfield, the president of the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade association that represents Google.

Pichai also faces another set of challenges: a crisis among Google’s employees. Hundreds of Google workers have revolted in response to the search giant’s plans to relaunch its service in China, which heavily censors the Internet.

At the end of November, they issued a public letter opposing technology that would “aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable.” Earlier that month, tens of thousands of Google engineers participated in a mass walkout in response to reports that the company suppressed internal allegations of sexual assault. Meredith Whittaker, one of the core organizers of the walkout and a leading researcher at Google, said employees would be watching the hearing for answers that Pichai hasn’t provided.

“Employee pressure has not let up at all,” she said. “You’re seeing continued organizing and an increasing boldness in the face of inaction. People aren’t letting up, and the demands will need to be addressed in an honest and clear-eyed way, sooner rather than later.”

Google’s last high-profile confrontation with Congress came in 2011, when Eric Schmidt, serving as the company’s executive chairman, testified to lawmakers about a federal antitrust investigation into Google’s search business. The company emerged mostly unscathed.

Since Schmidt’s departure last year, though, Google has undergone a political transformation. Over the summer, the company elevated Kent Walker, its longtime general counsel, to a senior role overseeing the company’s policy operations. The goal had been to promote a well-regarded veteran of the company’s litany of legal disputes to a public post, shielding Pichai and Page from the demands of lawmakers who hoped to grill Silicon Valley, according to four people who spoke about Walker on condition of anonymity.

But the company’s calculation quickly backfired, when Senate lawmakers rejected Walker’s offer to testify at a hearing in September. The result was a bipartisan barrage of criticism and an empty chair highlighting Google’s absence. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) later slammed the company for being “AWOL” on the issues.

“The challenge for Google is that they have operated from their founding with a set of objectives that didn’t require approval from any government entity. And they got used to the notion of being accountable to no one,” said Roger McNamee, one of Google’s earliest investors. “Now that it is clear that success has brought with it a range of negative side effects, Google’s management team and board are struggling to be good citizens.”

Pichai hasn’t totally eschewed politics. Since Trump’s election, he’s criticized the president’s immigration policies on behalf of employees, many of whom are foreign-born workers.

Mounting frustrations with Google prompted Pichai to pay an earlier visit to Washington this September, as Republicans prepared to announce their hearing. The two-day swing included stops at the White House and on Capitol Hill, where the tech executive huddled in the office of House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy. The face-to-face meeting came days after McCarthy had blasted Google in response to a video, unearthed by Breitbart News, showing Google executives upset with Trump’s 2016 presidential election.

McCarthy opened the session by inviting in reporters and cameras. Turning to Pichai, he offered a brief tease of what was to come: “There’s a lot of questions we want to get answered. "