SAN FRANCISCO – Google’s chief executive officer Sundar Pichai rejected claims of political bias against conservatives in his first-ever appearance before Congress while emphasizing the American roots of the internet company.
Republican lawmakers hammered Pichai, at times asserting that Google manipulates search results to show conservatives in a negative light or to suppress the viewpoints of right-leaning voices.
In his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Pichai dodged questions about re-entering China, saying Google has no current plans to launch a search product that complies with Beijing censors. The project, codenamed “Dragonfly,” has unnerved some employees and lawmakers.
A number of questions also challenged Google’s mass collection of the personal information of American consumers.
The appearance on Capitol Hill was the first major test of whether Pichai could present the kind of public face Google needs in Washington as the internet giant faces increasingly harsh scrutiny of its business practices and new threats of regulation from the Trump administration.
The soft-spoken CEO, who at one point during the hearing was asked to speak into the microphone so he could be heard, does not have the political experience of one of his predecessors Eric Schmidt who, during his 10-year tenure from 2001 to 2011, developed strong relationships with both sides of the aisle.
An engineer by training, Pichai joined Google in 2004, climbing through the ranks and running key parts of the business, including the Chrome web browser and the Android mobile operating system. In 2015, when the company reorganized Google as a subsidiary of Alphabet, he became its CEO. He now runs an online advertising business that’s forecast to make more than $100 billion this year.
The internet giant has largely avoided heavy scrutiny from Washington even as concerns mount over its dominance of the search business around the world and the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories on its YouTube video service, but tensions escalated in recent months.
In September, Google’s parent company Alphabet refused to send its chief executive Larry Page or Pichai to testify before a Senate intelligence committee hearing. So U.S. senators set out a chair bearing Google’s name and repeatedly took shots at the company for being a no-show while grilling Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about Russian election meddling, online privacy and political bias on tech platforms.
As criticism of Google cranked up, a trip to Capitol Hill was hastily arranged. Pichai, 46, met with lawmakers from both parties, including a sit down with House Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and agreed to appear before Congress.
Since then, Pichai has been working to solidify relationships with GOP lawmakers and conservative groups. Last week, he took part in a White House business roundtable that included other tech leaders such as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Oracle co-chief executive Safra Catz.
President Donald Trump and his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, have accused Silicon Valley companies of liberal bias that has led to the suppression and censorship of conservative voices. In August, Trump claimed search results for “Trump News” were “RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD.” Google has repeatedly denied any political bias in Internet search results.
McCarthy has also chastised Google for search results, tweeting that results that incorrectly said the ideology of the California Republican Party included “Nazism” were a “disgrace.” Google blamed “vandalism” at Wikipedia.
Censorship charges have been raised in multiple hearings on Capitol Hill against Silicon Valley tech companies. A recent poll from the Media Research Center conducted by McLaughlin & Associates found that 65 percent of self-described conservatives believe that social media companies intentionally censor the political right.
Until recently, lawmakers had focused their criticism on Facebook, after a series of privacy blunders and the unchecked spread of online propaganda by Russia agents during and after the 2016 presidential election. CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified on Capitol Hill in April.
Google was frequently mentioned during a meeting earlier this year with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and state law enforcement officials exploring potential antitrust and data privacy investigations.
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