Commentary

Lawmakers Display Limited Grasp Of Google

Many people are calling on Congress to tackle a host of tech policy issues, ranging from data breaches to online privacy to foreign interference in elections. But lawmakers are obviously going to have to get up to speed on technology first -- at least going by the questions they lobbed at Google CEO Sundar Pichai at a hearing this week.

In one of the most contentious exchanges of the hearing, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) refused to accept Google's explanation that the data it collected depended on how users configured their devices.

“Does Google, through this phone, know that I have moved here and moved over to the left?” Poe asked, pointing to a spot to the left and waving an Apple iPhone in the air.

It's not clear whether Pichai saw the device was an iPhone or assumed Poe was using an Android. Either way, the answer is the same -- it depends on Poe's settings and the specific apps he uses.

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Pichai tried to explain, but Poe rejected the explanation.

“It's yes or no,” Poe lectured. “You make $100 million a year -- you ought to be able to answer the question.”

Pichai again attempted to say he couldn't answer the question without more information. But Poe acted as if he simply couldn't believe that was the case.

“I'm shocked you don't know,” Poe told Pichai. “I think Google obviously does.”

Other lawmakers complained to Pichai about perceived bias in Google's search results -- but showed only a questionable understanding of how Google's algorithms work.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) referred to conservative outlet PJ Media's debunked “study” that supposedly showed Google's search results reflected left-wing bias. PJ Media editor Paula Bolyard actually wrote last August that she conducted a single Google search for news about Trump, and found that articles from CNN, the Washington Post, and NBC -- which she considers “left-learning” -- frequently appeared in the top 100 Google results.

Pichai said there were problems with the methodology of the “study,” and disputed that Google's search results were politically biased.

But Smith not only persisted, but wanted to know what connection could possibly exist between the "study's" methodology and conclusions.

Then there was Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), best known for espousing white nationalist views. He wanted to know why his granddaughter saw negative news about him on her iPhone. When Pichai answered that iPhones were made by a different company, King said the phone may have been an Android.

Pichai said an app on the phone may have sent King's granddaughter a notification, but that he would need more information to say for sure.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California) -- one of the few lawmakers who has a tech background -- was willing to answer King less diplomatically.

He took out a phone, searched for King's name on Google, and reported that the first result was an ABC News article stating: “‘Steve King’s “Racist” Immigration Talk Prompts Calls for Congressional Censure.’”

“That's a negative article,” Lieu said, adding that it didn't appear in that spot due to tinkering by Google.

“If you want positive search results, do positive things,” Lieu said. “If you don't want negative search results, don't do negative things.”

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