A House of Representatives hearing with Google’s chief executive officer went off the rails Tuesday as Republicans and Democrats tried to score political points.
In a hearing reminiscent of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s hearing on the Hill when lawmakers failed to grasp basic aspects of the company and bickered over partisan claims, Google CEO Sundar Pichai got an earful from Republicans accusing the search giant of anti-conservative “bias”… at Apple.
Specifically, Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King wanted to know why his granddaughter’s iPhone showed her some sort of ad or news story about him.
“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 told Pichai. “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?”
“Congressman, the iPhone is made by a different company,” Pichai explained.
“It might have been an Android. It’s just, it was a hand-me-down of some kind,” King said.
“You know, I’m happy to follow up when I understand the specifics,” Pichai replied. “There may be an application which was being used which had a notification. But I’m happy to understand it better and clarify it for you.”
Democratic California Rep. Zoe Lofgren pushed back on Republican claims of bias by asking Pichai to explain how the search algorithm works, particularly why photos of Donald Trump show up when you Google “idiot.”
"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. How would that happen? How does search work so that that would occur?" she asked.
"We provide search today for — anytime you type in a keyword, we as Google, we have gone out and crawled and stored copies of billions of webpages in our index,” Pichai explained. “We take the keyword and match it against webpages 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."
"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,” Lofgren said.
"Last year we served over 3 trillion searches. Just as a fact, every single day, 15% of the searches Google sees, we have never seen them before," Pichai said. "So this is working at scale. We don't manually intervene on any particular search result."
Republican claims debunked: At the hearing, Republican Texas Rep. Lamar Smith wildly claimed that 96 percent of Google news stories on Trump are from left-wing outlets, a claim Trump has also cited.
Politifact rated that claim “False.”
“This figure is based on a non-scientific study from a conservative website that categorized any media outlet not expressly conservative as being part of the ‘left.’ These outlets include wire services, broadcast networks and most major newspapers and collectively account for a large percentage of original news reports produced in the United States. The methodology essentially preordains that a large percentage of coverage captured by Google will be what the study defines as "left," which is wrong,” the outlet stated.
Lawmakers blew it:
“Over the course of three and a half hours, the members of the committee staked out opposite sides of a partisan battle over whether Google search and other products are biased against conservatives,” wrote Wired’s Issie Lapowsky. “Republican members largely criticized the company for burying conservative websites in search results and amplifying criticism of conservative policies—accusations that Google has repeatedly denied. Democrats only poured fuel on the fire by spending their allotted five minutes helping Pichai shoot down those trumped-up claims, which are hard to prove either way thanks to the company's black box algorithms. The rhetorical tennis match left precious little time for committee members to explore in any detail the urgent questions around Google's interest in building a censored search engine for China, the company's bulk data collection practices, its recent security breaches, or issues related to competition and antitrust regulation.”