Privacy, competitive practices and Chinese censorship weren’t the only topics on the agenda when Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the US House Judiciary Committee today.
Republican representatives seemed especially invested in using the hearing as an opportunity to grill Pichai over what they consider is a bias from the search giant against conservative websites.
Curiously, one of the side lessons we learned from today’s hearing is lawmakers’ rudimentary understanding of technology.
In one exchange, Republican Representative for the State of Texas Lamar Smith questioned Pichai on whether he had ever ordered a Google employee to manipulate search results.
Trying hard to not to roll his eyes, Pichai did his best effort to explain how search results are not the product of direct human intervention, but the output of algorithms that take hundreds of factors into account.
Smith did not accept that explanation, refuting the technical lingo by insisting, “Let me just say, I disagree. I think humans can manipulate the process. It is a human process at its base.”
Republicans on the panel seemed hellbent in their belief that the billions of websites indexed in the Google search engine are arbitrarily manipulated by politically biased individuals inside the tech giant’s headquarters.
Another Republican representative, Steve Chabot from Ohio, pressed further on the subject, complaining that when he googled for the GOP tax cuts or the Republican health care bill, the first several pages of search results listed unflattering articles about those initiatives.
“How do you explain this apparent bias on Google’s part against conservative points of view, against conservative policies? Is it just the algorithm, or is there more happening there?” Chabot questioned.
“Congressman, I understand the frustration of seeing negative news, and, you know, I see it on me,” Pichai answered.
“What is important here is we use the robust methodology to reflect what is being said about any given topic at any particular time. And we try to do it objectively, using a set of rubrics. It is in our interest to make sure we reflect what’s happening out there in the best objective manner possible.
“I can commit to you, and I can assure you, we do it without regards to political ideology. Our algorithms have no notion of political sentiment in it.”
Conservatives weren’t buying any of Pichai’s explanations, with Chabot doubling down on his position. He insisted conservatives believed Google was “picking winners and losers in political discourse” and, in the best Trumpian rhetoric, he backed his view by saying, “There’s a lot of people that think what I’m saying here is happening […] and I think it’s happening.”
In reaction to the Republican line of questioning, Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren of California performed a search in the middle of the hearing.
“Manipulation of search results — I think it’s important to talk about how search works,” Lofgren said.
“Right now, if you Google the word ‘idiot’, under images, a picture of Donald Trump comes up. I just did that.”
Lofgren is referring to a series of events in July – including Trump’s heavily criticised performance during his short European tour (remember his infamous Helsinki summit with Putin?) and a coordinated effort by Google users from all around the world – that resulted in photos of Trump showing among the first image results for the word ‘idiot’.
As a relevant side note here, similar episodes have happened in recent times, with users gaming Google to place Bill Clinton’s image among the top ten search results for the word ‘rapist’ and again in 2009 when searches for ‘Michelle Obama’ returned a picture of the first lady’s face retouched to look like a primate.
Pichai tried to elucidate the process: “Anytime you type in a keyword, we as Google, we have gone out and crawled and stored copies of billions of web pages in our index. We take the keyword and match it against web pages and rank them based on over 200 signals, things like relevance, freshness, popularity, how other people are using it.”
“And based on that, at any given time, we try to rank and find the best results for that query. Then we evaluate them with external raters to make sure, and they evaluate it to objective guidelines, and that’s how we make sure the process is working.”
Lofgren followed with a facetious enquiry to help educate the Republican representatives: “So it’s not some little man sitting behind the curtain figuring out what we’re going to show the user — it’s basically a compilation of what users are generating, and trying to sort through that information.”
In another exchange that reminded me of watching my grandfather trying to open his Facebook account for the first time, Republican Representative Steve King asked Pichai to explain why his granddaughter’s iPhone was acting so “unconservative”.
“I have a seven-year-old granddaughter who picked up her phone during the election, and she’s playing a little game, the kind of game a kid would play,” King said, “And up on there pops a picture of her grandfather.”
“And I’m not going to say into the record what kind of language was used around that picture of her grandfather, but I’d ask you: how does that show up on a seven-year-old’s iPhone, who’s playing a kid’s game?”
Pichai hesitated – maybe he was containing the urge to drop his head and facepalm – but responded politely, “Congressman, the iPhone is made by a different company. And so, you know, I mean…”