On Tuesday, Google chief executive officer Sundar Pichai sat before the House Judiciary Committee in Washington to answer inquiries about privacy and its plans for a censored search engine in China.
The topics merit serious consideration, but some grandstanding and Luddite moments seemed at times to derail the proceedings.
Officials who one day may be charged with crafting privacy legislation, possibly even oversight rules, don’t seem to grasp some of the most fundamental aspects of technology. This matters, certainly for the company, as well as the consumers and companies that rely on these tools and platforms.
Wielding an iPhone, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) demanded to know if Google could track him if he crossed the room. Never mind that the phone was not actually a Google device, but from rival Apple Inc. Google does make iOS apps, which can indeed track the user, but it’s an impossible question to answer without checking the phone’s settings.
Pichai answered, “Not by default,” and explained that he’d need to look at the device.
Rep. Poe would not be deterred: “It’s not a trick question. You make $100 million a year, you ought to be able to answer that question…I’m shocked you don’t know,” he said. The episode appears to be the congressman’s attempt to grill Pichai about privacy- and location-tracking. In August, the news broke that even when a phone’s location services are turned off, Google still stores location data to power certain services.
Rep. Martha Roby (R-Alabama), perhaps, had one of the most basic, but insightful takes on the proceedings: “I understand there’s a personal responsibility as a consumer to do my part to try and understand this. But it’s also very complicated stuff.”
A significant portion of the proceedings aimed to cast Google and its employees as left-leaning parties that are building their biases into the tools — which are considerable. Google is synonymous with Android, Wear OS, the software in millions of home electronics, car infotainment systems and the massive engine that powers the vast majority of the world’s online searches.
Pichai was grilled ad nauseum by Republican representatives on this topic, but he rejected the allegations of bias in the company or its technologies. Google’s algorithms are largely powered by user sentiment, i.e. what people find valuable or useful. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California) called the matter a “waste of time.” If leaders want positive search results for their efforts, they need to “do positive things” to earn them.
Some of these inquiries acted as little more than sideshows. But a few important details did manage to surface.
Representatives such as David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) and Keith Rothfus (R-Pennsylvania) dug into the company’s plans in China. Cicilline didn’t mince words. He has a dim view of appeasing a foreign government’s censorship requirements, in light of the rise of authoritarianism around the world.
Pichai downplayed the matter of a censored Google search engine for the Chinese market as “limited efforts internally,” and several times, he reiterated that there are no current plans to pursue it. But he admitted that the project had been “underway for a while,” with more than 100 people on the task. He also wouldn’t promise that it would stay off the table during his leadership.
The politicians are clearly concerned over how the tech giants collect and use the data flowing through its pipes — including what they store, what they make available to other companies, how they may be willing to work with foreign parties, and how transparent they’re willing to be with users about all of it.
It’s evident that Google hasn’t escaped the scrutiny that has infamously gripped networks like Facebook and Twitter. But what’s murky is how this will play out from here — largely because it’s not at all clear if Congress has the requisite understanding of the nuances, or if tech companies have the willingness to police themselves.
The retail industry, as advertisers, partners and users of these systems, should brace for more twists and turns on the tech and data front. And if they’re collecting user information as well, take some learning lessons from them.