Google chief defends company during Capitol Hill grilling

Google CEO Sundar Pichai defended the internet giant's business practices during a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

The executive was calm and soft-spoken even as he fielded a storm of questions from lawmakers angry over a host of issues from allegations of anti-conservative bias, Google's privacy practices, its market power and a controversial project to build a censored search engine for China.

"I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way," Pichai said in his opening statement before the House Judiciary Committee. "To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests."

ADVERTISEMENT

It was Pichai's first time testifying before Congress and comes after Google declined to send a representative to a previous Senate hearing in September. His much-anticipated appearance brought out protesters as well as conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and Trump ally Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneKey numbers to know for Mueller's testimony Judge finds Stone violated gag order, blocks him from using social media Counterprotesters outnumber far-right extremists at DC rally MORE.

During the three-and-a-half-hours of testimony, lawmakers from both parties made their displeasure with Google and other tech giants known.

“All of these topics — competition, censorship, bias and others — point to one fundamental question that demands the nation’s attention: Are America’s technology companies serving as instruments of freedom or instruments of control?" asked House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants History in the House: Congress weathers unprecedented week EU official in Canada says he feels 'at home' there because no one was shouting 'send him back' MORE (R-Calif.) in a statement at the opening of the hearing.

McCarthy helped arrange Pichai’s appearance earlier this year after leading conservatives in accusing Google and other Silicon Valley giants of suppressing conservative viewpoints. On Monday, McCarthy in a pointed tweet said the company needed to prove it was "on the side of the Free World (in particular, America)."

The bias allegations are widely disputed among technology experts and Pichai maintained that the company operates its services in a nonpartisan way.

"We work hard to ensure the integrity of our products, and we’ve put a number of checks and balances in place to ensure they continue to live up to our standards," he said in his statement.

Democrats were dismissive of Republican claims of censorship by tech giants.

“Before we delve into these questions, I must first dispense with a completely illegitimate issue, which is the fantasy, dreamed up by some conservatives, that Google and other online platforms have an anti-conservative bias,” said Rep. Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerWhy are we permitting federal child abuse at our border? Trump knocks Mueller after deal struck for him to testify House Democrats request briefing on Epstein, Acosta MORE (D-N.Y.), the panel’s top Democrat and likely next chairman.

“As I have said repeatedly, no credible evidence supports this right-wing conspiracy theory,” Nadler continued. “I have little doubt that my Republican colleagues will spend much of their time presenting a laundry list of anecdotes and out-of-context statements made by Google employees as supposed evidence of anti-conservative bias.  But none of that will actually make it true.”

Democrats did have tough questions for Pichai on other issues, joining with Republicans to press him on Project Dragonfly, an effort to build a search engine that complies with the Chinese Communist Party's censorship rules.

Pichai tried to downplay the controversy, repeatedly saying that Google currently has no plans to launch a search product in China. But he also carefully sidestepped questions asking him to rule out deploying such a search engine in the future.

"It’s a limited effort internally currently," Pichai told lawmakers, revealing that the effort has involved as many as a hundred Google employees.

Pichai's hearing comes as Google is under fire on a number of fronts.

Just a day before, on Monday, The New York Times published a lengthy investigation into how much location data the mobile app industry collects on average users and how mobile operating systems like Google’s Android enable invasive tracking.

When pressed about Google’s data collection and location tracking, Pichai painted a different picture and said that those functions are primarily to offer users services that they want.

He pointed out Google’s efforts to give its users more control over what information they give out and said 20 million people a day are changing their privacy settings.

“We need minimal data to do advertising,” Pichai said. “We give you options to turn ad personalization off. We store most of the data we do today to help give users the experience they want and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Pichai's hearing became a focal point for critics of Google.

When Pichai walked into the Rayburn House Office Building on Tuesday morning, he was greeted by a screaming Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist banned from YouTube and other platforms, chanting “Google is evil.”

Capitol Police eventually told Jones that he would be arrested if he did not restrain himself.

Also in attendance was Roger Stone, the onetime campaign adviser to President TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks 'the Squad' as 'racist group of troublemakers' MORE. Stone was banned from Twitter last year after a string of vulgar tweets directed toward reporters. He told The Hill that Google had been slanting search results to reflect negatively on him.

Stone and Jones departed the hearing early, choosing instead to hold court outside the room. At one point, Jones chased after Rep. Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchBipartisan group of lawmakers invites colleagues to tour DC's Holocaust museum GOP senator presses Instagram, Facebook over alleged bias in content recommendations Overnight Defense: Senate rejects effort to restrict Trump on Iran | Democrats at debate vow to shore up NATO | Senate confirms chief of Space Command MORE (D-Fla.) as the lawmaker departed the hearing. Deutch has slammed Jones for spreading hoaxes involving the Parkland, Fla., mass shooting, which took place in the Democrat's district.

Also outside the hearing was a group protesting against Project Dragonfly. And inside the room, seated behind Pichai, was Ian Madrigal, an activist dressed as the mustachioed Monopoly man.

The hearing also offered a preview of how Democrats will try to police the tech industry when they take over the House early next year. The issues that they prioritized Tuesday included data privacy, Google’s market power and the company’s treatment of its workers.

Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineTwo Democrats vow to press forward on Trump impeachment Democratic lawmaker calls asylum, refugee programs 'crown jewel' of immigration system House Democrat: Mueller testimony will help people 'understand the gravity' of Trump's conduct MORE (D-R.I.), who is in line to become chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, noted the European Union’s (EU) findings in the past two years that Google had been suppressing competition through its dominance in search and its bundling of mobile services.

Cicilline said he was concerned about Google’s market size and even suggested that the federal government should look into breaking it up.

“I strongly believe in structural antitrust enforcement,” he said. “I also plan to work with the Federal Trade Commission to develop legislation to address this type of discriminatory conduct online.”

The Rhode Island Democrat also blasted Pichai over Dragonfly.

"This goes beyond Google, and frankly beyond China," Cicilline said at the hearing. "At a moment of rising authoritarianism around the world, when more leaders are using surveillance, censorship and repression against their own people, we’re in a moment that we must reassert American moral leadership."

Pichai said he disagreed with the EU's characterization of Google's practices, noting that the company is appealing a pair of record-breaking antitrust fines, and that its services do not discriminate against competitors.

"We provide users with the best experience that they’re looking for, the most relevant information, and that’s our true north," he said.

"That’s how we approach our products."

Updated at 4:46 p.m.