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.
Read: What Google’s CEO couldn’t explain to Congress
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.