WASHINGTON (CN) – At a House panel Tuesday where Republicans hit Google with allegations of bias, CEO Sundar Pichai insisted that the search giant builds its products without regard for political viewpoint.
“Providing users with high-quality, accurate and trusted information is sacrosanct to us,” Pichai testified this morning before the House Judiciary Committee. “It’s what our principles are and our business interests, our natural, long-term incentives are aligned with that. We want to serve users everywhere and we need to earn their trust in doing so.”
Pichai told the committee the company processed more than 3 trillion searches last year and that employees cannot “manually intervene” on individual search results, especially given that 15 percent of the searches the company handles each day are searches it has never seen before.
Pichai is the latest in a line of tech executives who have spent time before the panel, rebutting Republican allegations that their products unfairly stifle right-wing viewpoints. Committee Democrats who have labeled such allegations as a a waste of time Tuesday insisted meanwhile that lawmakers would be better served questioning the company about its data-protection procedures or its work with countries like China and Russia.
Data use did come up during questioning by Rep. Bob Goodlatte. Expressing concern about Google’s ubiquity, the Virginia Republican said many people who use the Google search engine or its phones or other products are likely clueless of how much information they expose on a daily basis.
“With Americans carrying their phones all day every day, Google is able to collect an amount of information about its users that would even make the NSA blush,” Goodlatte said.
Pichai told Goodlatte that Google offers users multiple options to control whether their data gets shared with the company, and that it goes to “great lengths” to protect users’ privacy. On multiple occasions Tuesday, Pichai emphasized that Google tracks location information only from users’ phones if they allow it to. He did acknowledge, however, that there are circumstances, such as the use of third-party apps or devices, that make the question of what Google collects more complicated.
But many Republicans kept returning to allegations that Google uses its immense market power to systematically favor liberal views over conservative ones.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, expressed concern about Google’s news results consistently placing left-leaning news outlets higher on the page than their conservative competitors.
“Google could well elect the next president, with dire implications for our democracy,” Smith said. “This should be of real concern to all but the most politically partisan.”
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, expressed similar frustration about the search results he saw when the House was debating tax-cut and health care legislation, saying the news he read after searching for the issue on Google was overwhelmingly negative.
Pichai said the process that produces the results on the news feed, like the rest of Google’s search operation, is automated and not the result of individual choices on which news stories should be placed in what spot on the page.
“I understand the frustration of seeing negative news, I see it on me, there are times you can search on Google and page after page there’s negative news, which we reflect,” Pichai said. “But what is important here is we use a 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.
Pichai’s claim that politics does not enter into that process met with skepticism from Chabot.
“I sincerely believe that you believe what you’re saying here, but you have almost 90,000 employees, somebody out there is doing something that just isn’t working if you’re looking for unbiased results,” Chabot said.