Yesterday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee. The topic was Google’s control of information, thanks to its eponymous search engine, its power over online advertising and commerce, and its Android operating system, which runs most of the world’s smartphones.
Pichai had declined an invitation to testify about Russian meddling in U.S. elections before September’s Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, where both Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey appeared, and where senators shot barbs at the empty chair Google would have occupied during that hearing. The House appearance offered the company and its CEO an opportunity to seem engaged with American policy.
The results were poor. As my colleague Alexis Madrigal reported, Pichai was consistently unable to respond to congressional questions, even struggling to explain the basics of how Google’s search engine and Android’s location services operated. Lawmakers didn’t fare much better, posing mostly general queries that didn’t get to the heart of Google’s stranglehold on data. In particular, Republicans asked, over and over again, if Google’s search products were biased against conservatives. Pichai’s responses, variations on the word nonpartisan, failed to parry many of these attacks.
Such accusations have become commonplace during the past year of congressional inquiries into the tech sector. This time, Democrats attempted to defang them, sometimes even if it meant burning through their time for more substantive questions.
For Democrats weary of Republicans banging the drum of bias, a highlight of the Pichai hearing came from Ted Lieu, a Democrat from Southern California. Lieu first boasted greater technical knowledge than his fellow committee members (“I feel like I have to educate some of my colleagues in how it works”), establishing that no secret labor force existed to up or downgrade specific search terms, such as the names of individual congresspersons.
Then he performed a live demonstration, walking through a Google News search for Congressman Steve King. The first result, he reported, was from ABC News. “It says, ‘Steve King’s “Racist” Immigration Talk Prompts Calls for Congressional Censure,’” Lieu said. “That’s a negative article.” Lieu again offered Pichai the opportunity to affirm that a group of Google programmers doesn’t insure that when someone searches for Steve King, a negative article pops up. “We are trying to reflect what is currently newsworthy, what is currently being discussed,” Pichai responded.
Lieu pounced. “Let me just conclude here by stating the obvious,” he said. “If you want positive search results, do positive things. If you don’t want negative search results, don’t do negative things. To some of my colleagues across the aisle, if you’re getting bad press articles and bad search results, don’t blame Google or Facebook or Twitter. Consider blaming yourself.”
It was an electrifying performance. When King got around to his questioning, he pressed the issue of a “built-in bias” against conservatives, an attack that felt more toothless after Lieu had made an example of him. And in the aftermath of a relatively uneventful and un-gratifying session of testimony, Lieu managed exactly the outcome he had predicted. A Google News result for his name this morning yields headlines that buff his prowess and power: “Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu Tears Into Republican Colleagues”; “Rep. Ted Lieu to GOP Colleagues: ‘Consider Blaming Yourself’ for Negative Google Results”; “Dem Knocks GOP Colleagues: Blame ‘Yourself’ for Unfavorable Google Search Results.” The proof is in the pudding.
But in truth, Lieu’s enjoinder came at a cost to the hearing and, ultimately, to the American people his committee was meant to serve in convening it. Lieu managed to score a political victory over King and the GOP, to be sure. But in the process, he implicitly endorsed the algorithmic methods Google uses to surface content. The idea that righteous deeds yield more and higher search results is a sentiment that Google would certainly find agreeable. Whatever Google’s doing, Lieu implied, it’s the right thing because it produces the results that you see.
But it’s not truth or righteousness that results in better placement. It’s popularity. Google’s system treats inbound links as recommendations. The more recommendations a website or media outlet has, the more other material on that site rises to the top of results. That doesn’t make the site or the content more trustworthy; it just makes it more popular. A focus on automated surfacing of popular content, rather than on a manual curation of what’s correct, necessary, or valuable, can amplify more extreme ideas.
That state of affairs has been well documented on Google’s sister company YouTube, where extremism multiplies its effects. But it also happens on a more mundane level, every day, as news outlets shrink in number and technology companies steer readers and viewers to the most enticing material. The very fact that the hearing so overemphasized political posturing from both sides underscores the positive effect of talking points and quips no matter the political persuasion of those who utter them. Lieu is no exception. He portrayed his live-search performance as righteous, when in fact it was mostly theatrical. That theatricality helped it gain attention, and that attention in turn helped raise his status amid the vast murk of data that produce search results at the hands of Google’s algorithm. Google is calling the shots—not by pulling the strings, but by building the computer systems that do the string-pulling.
And that very state of affairs was supposed to be the purpose of the hearing. The House Judiciary Committee was supposed to dig in to the implications of that power. Instead, the lawmakers that compose it turned the session into a contest to game it. Skewering the Republican opposition by celebrating the implicit virtue of Google’s search algorithm might help Ted Lieu’s reputation, temporarily, in the public’s imagination—as served up by Google search, of course. But does it help democracy? There are no winners here—except for Google, whose power over information remains intact while those who would put checks on it trade barbs to raise their ranking in its results.