Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s three and a half hour testimony before the House Judiciary Committee today — and the problem with congressional tech executive hearings — is perhaps best encapsulated by his brief exchange with Texas Rep. Ted Poe.
“I have an iPhone,” Poe said, brandishing the device for all to see. “If I go and sit with my Democratic friends over there, does Google track my movement?”
Pichai began to reply, explaining that the answer to Poe’s question really depends on a bunch of smartphone minutiae — location services, app settings, privacy configurations, etc. But before he could finish, Poe cut him off. “It’s a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question,” he bellowed. (It wasn’t.)
The exchange is an exemplar of the disconnect, the frustrations, and the pointlessness of the past year’s parade of tech executive hearings. Congress calls for Silicon Valley to have its day in the DC hot seat; then the day comes, and instead we find it’s a booster seat. Or an opportunity for congressional yelling. Or executive evasiveness. And in any case, nothing much is accomplished.
Take Poe’s question. Its topic — data privacy and location tracking — is important, but the wording was unartful, and it revealed, immediately, a poor understanding of the workings of the technology to which it referred. Conversely, Pichai’s answer seemed to purposefully ignore the spirit of the question, focusing on semantics instead of a reasonable answer. (For example: “While I don’t know the particulars of your device, yes, many Google apps track granular location information.”) The end result? Nothing worthwhile.
Instead the roughly 210 minutes of hearing testimony were mostly devoted to shallow questions from lawmakers about political bias. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan devoted five minutes to asking about an email from a marketing executive at Google, grilling Pichai about individual employee efforts to help mobilize Latino voters. Rep. Lamar Smith spent his time spent his time citing studies with dubious methodology (the report’s author previously noted her methods were “not scientific”) alleging a deep political bias in Google’s news results. Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican, complained anecdotally about search results, claiming he only saw negative stories about his party’s Affordable Care Act repeal bills, suggesting a nefarious anti-conservative bias. Meanwhile, Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, used part of his five minutes to bemoan the Google search results for his own name — suggesting the search engine has a pro-conservative bias. In one instance, Iowa Rep. Steve King asked if Pichai would release the names of Google’s search engineers so they could be independently investigated for their own political beliefs.
This focus on superficial issues of employee bias created a missed opportunity to really probe Google’s business practices. Especially when you consider the company globally — in search, mapping, web browsing, and even mobile — everyone else is an also-ran. It notoriously crushes competition and bleeds its rivals by favoring its own products in its results — all of which comes together to make it by far the most dominant player in advertising. It also means that its screwups happen at an unprecedented scale.
Which is why it is a shame that there was so little time devoted to how it is often used to sow division and radicalize users. It took more than two hours before Pichai was asked about YouTube’s vast repository of slanderous conspiratorial videos. His lackluster reply — “We always think that there is more to do” — went unchallenged by even the simplest of follow-ups. When Pichai noted that roughly 400 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute, no one bothered to ask how Google could ever possibly police it. There were no questions about YouTube’s recommendation algorithms or about YouTube as a vector of radicalization.
A few times, lawmakers managed to meaningfully press the CEO on issues like possible expansion of search efforts in China. One line of inquiry in particular by Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, was particularly illuminating in showcasing Pichai’s efforts to evade the questions, instead offering boilerplate answers along the lines of “We always think it’s in our duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information.”
But few other moments were equally edifying. With each representative limited to five minutes, Pichai’s grilling was scattershot, wide-ranging, and riddled with partisan grandstanding. At one point, Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert opted not to direct questions toward Pichai, and instead used the bulk of his time to disparage Wikipedia and the Southern Poverty Law Center — two of YouTube’s partners in its “Trusted Flaggers” program to spot violating content on its platform.
Perhaps most telling were the vacant seats. After using up their time, a number of representatives simply left the hearing, not bothering to stick around for questions put forth by their colleagues or Pichai’s answers to them. To many, it read as lawmakers who may be concerned more with the performance of asking questions than a holistic understanding of the complex issues at hand. As one onlooker artfully summed it up on Twitter: “It’s a letter to the editor in the local newspaper, but with subpoena power.”
Pichai’s hearing wasn’t an outlier. Over the course of the past year a number of tech executives have been summoned to Washington, DC, for a grilling, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Their hearings were strikingly similar: a handful of embarrassingly ill-conceived questions, a few cathartic jabs; some tech exec dodges, grandstanding galore, and, on occasion, a genuinely thoughtful line of inquiry (typically cut short).
Missing from all of them: progress.
The lackluster hearings feel fundamentally disconnected from the urgency of the conversation surrounding Silicon Valley’s biggest companies over the last year. Be it Cambridge Analytica, Trump’s search bias tweets, the monopoly question, or the deplatforming of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, 2018 has been a trying year for Big Tech. Countless scandals have led to a broader reckoning about censorship, speech, privacy, and the degree to which a handful of companies have so much influence over our personal lives and the information we consume, all so that we can be better targeted with ads. The technology backlash, led in part by vocal supporters in Washington, at times has looked like a movement. It has struck fear into the hearts of Silicon Valley executives, as they hear for the first time in a generation whispers of regulation.
But in practice, it’s hard to imagine how these hearings will result in anything more substantial than a few semi-viral soundbites. Lawmakers get a TV moment while tech execs fly home having claimed the mantle of civic duty — everybody’s happy, even if little is accomplished.
So then what exactly is the point of all this? If the goal is mere catharsis, achieved by dragging billionaires across the country to be read the Riot Act by boomers in business attire, then, okay, it’s a hit. But if the goal was an earnest attempt at answers and accountability from the stewards of the most profitable and powerful businesses of the internet age, it’s difficult to see what was accomplished.