Sundar Pichai, testified on transparency, accountability, data collection and filtering practices of Google at C-SPAN in December 2018.

  •  Renowned Chief Executive Officer of Google, Sundar Pichai, testified on transparency, accountability, data collection and filtering practices of Google at C-SPAN in December 2018. The judiciary committee chairman of this testimony at the time was Mr. Bob Goodlatte.

The first witness Kevin McCarthy of California addresses a surprising powerful fact reported by the wall stress journal that “90% of all searches on the internet go through google.” McCarthy addresses three important questions regarding transparency and candor to Mr.Pichai. The first question addresses how google is committed to the free market ideals of competition and entrepreneurship that has launched its revolutionary products to begin with. Secondly, concerns are raised about political bias and that is should not be integrated to Google’s search engines from its own workforce. Third, McCarthy is wanting confirmation that google is living up to America’s belief in free expression and human rights whilst dealing with foreign governments. This last concern is raised due to recent news at the time that Google is developing a censored search engine with the Chinese government and developing next generation technology in China. It is concerning to know that Google is strengthening China’s surveillance, control and repression after Google withdrew from the Chinese market in 2010. These questions all lead to a fundamental question if Americas technology companies are serving as instruments of freedom or instruments of control? As Google has much influence on the internet, it needs to be anti-competitive, free of political bias and censorship.

Data collection is one of the main concerns of Google. Google collects a high volume of data from each android smartphone and many individuals are unaware of the amount of data collection that google houses on a day-to-day basis despite having signed the regular consent agreement. Algorithmic screening is the process the Google uses to analyze user inputs and it allows ranking pages based that may influence consumer choice. This seems unbiased but Google faces allegations that there are manipulations of this algorithm to favour those ideas and content that is approved by Google. Due to this, internet search rankings also influence customer choices and usually cause consumers to usually choose one of the top webpages that pops up. Concerns regarding data collection include facts such as a dormant android phone with chrome open in the background is known to communicate 340 times to google within 24 hours.

Sundar Pichai introduces himself as CEO of Google for 3 years at the time being and how it has been 25 years since he has been in the United States. He states his love for technology and how he has become a technology optimist. He is proud that Google is helping to empower the American society and optimizing the workforce. Google is a company dedicated to free flow of information. It is known to work alongside the government to keep the country secure and safe and abides to never work against it. Such an example of Google and American society collaborations include how it has supported 1.5 million American Businesses. But Mr. Pichai understands how this role comes with great responsibility. Along with providing choice, transparency and control to the users google engages in no political bias. Mr. Pichai understands to do otherwise would be against the company’s own core principles. Furthermore, Google houses a diverse community of workers from immigrants to concerned parents to the layman.

One of the first questions that was addressed by the council chairman is regarding if android operating systems collect a high volume of detail including location, surroundings, temperature, and altitude of each user every hour of every day? Furthermore, do average users read the terms of services? Mr. Pichai answers the chairman’s concerns by acknowledging how Google works to protect privacy, give transparency, and control to each user. Information to google is received based on the applications that an individual chooses to use. An example of this includes a fitness application used by consumers and specifically the steps tracking applications that consequently report to google location information which is feeding back to the user to provide the information they are seeking. Furthermore, he answers questions regarding if customers read the privacy agreement. Mr. Pichai states 160 million users have gone to my account settings and they have changed the privacy and hence, many users are aware of the extent of data collection that is actively done by Google.

Next, Section 230 of the communication decency act is actively referenced that gives Google much liability. The chairman curiously questions how google classifies objectionable material and whether Google and YouTube would be willing to make use of proper healthy civic dialogue if it meant having less user engagement. Mr. Pichai agrees immediately and answers that YouTube allows many participants to sustain their livelihood and they do the best they can to sustain such platforms that are needed by the community.

One of the major questions regarding Google and political parties arises next. The chairman speaks about when it comes to political advertising all political candidates are given the lowest rate. Should political parties be given the same advertisement rates to reach their prospective voters? The answer from the Google representative indicates that political ads are based on prices in auctions and there is no substantial difference between political reasonings. The differences that do arise are most likely differences by rates. And yes, they can be substantial. Variations based on time of day are decided by the system. However, the civic process is done in a non-biased way.

Next, Google found a bug in Google plus social media platform that could have uncovered data of half a million users. Google did not disclose this data until months later. Another bug was found recently. What obligations does google have to uncover information that is not financial based? The answer for such a question regarding data enclosure and safety goes as follows. The bugs are found by Google by audit or using automatic testing systems. Google does the right thing for each user and notifies users in 72 hours.

Another question that arises next in the council goes as follows. What is Google doing to combat white supremacy regarding YouTube? Google claims that they have content policies and when violations are found, they actively remove the videos/content. Is it noted who is creating these videos? If they are from the same account, they do notify the content creator and let them understand that they are violating many objectionable areas on Google.

Google faces allegations to addressing pro-trump content as tagged hate speech. This forms a great threat for democracy. Is there a hierarchy? How is it possible to improve political bias that is integrated in the algorithm? Google claims that providing users with high quality information is one of their core principles and they must earn the trust of all users and the government. How is accountability taken for the bias? Google’s studies indicate that each result is thoroughly searched and there is always a diverse methodology of search results. Furthermore, can an independent entity search the search results to determine the degree of political bias? Mr. Pichai answers that there have been independent third-party searches. Google publishes rater guidelines and studies have been done independently to ensure proper practice. Google has not sanctioned any employees for manipulation of the search results.

The next question concerns if there is overuse of conservative news organizations on Google? Mr. Pichai states that Google tries to remain as neutral as possible. Mr. Poe brings to light that the United States should be number one in protecting the privacy of its citizens rather than the European Union. Furthermore, it is also addressed that an android phone can disseminate information to all people and should allow the option to opt in.

When questioning what Google views as objectionable the major answers were violence, child safety, pornography, and extreme political views. Some extreme political views are found non-objectionable. Furthermore, the main viewpoint includes hate speech that houses many different definitions. Google understands that this area is open to different definitions and has put out its definition of “hate speech” for the users.

Ted Deutch from Florida questions if Google is responsible for their content. Marc Zuckerburg from Facebook claims that Facebook is responsible for the content on their social media platform and this representative of Florida wants to ask if Google can also join its peers in stating that it is responsible for the content that is seen by each user on its platform. Sundar Pichai also agrees that they claim responsibility for its content. The next question is regarding the overall theme of this council meeting which is data collection. While many different toggle features are paused, Google still continues to collect data information. Google receives precise information from apps and advertise companies. However, it is noted that Google does not transmit personal information to the advertisement companies. When asking if Google receives information from the advertisement companies to provide google with location information, Mr. Pichai states that location is turning out to be an important area for privacy agreement.

Mr. Marino from Pennsylvania initiates by saying that Google provides much responsibility to each employee and provides help to its own workforce. Being such a big powerhouse in the digital world also comes with big responsibilities to its workforce and its users. In 2010, Google left the Chinese marketplace as the Chinese government had received personal information from Google’s database. Mr. Marino wants to know what has changed since 2010 such that Google is in works with operating with China. Mr. Pichai answers that they are no longer in works with China as of the moment and are not in plans to enter in agreements with China. There is no plan on having a search product in China. Mr. Marino follows up to what if this is done in the future, what information would be shared to the Chinese considering user information? The chief executive officer of Google answers that they as a company always look at the conditions needed to operate, and it is an internal effort to refrain from working with China as of the moment. There are thousands of people hacking in the United States from China and Russia. How does google eliminate such threats? Mr. Pichai mentions that Google has faced multiple attacks before while working with law enforcement and they claim to be doing the best to eliminate such threats.

Mr. Doug Collins, R-Georgia, again talked about perception. He shoots several questions to Sundar Pichai as a yes or no answer. Do you collect name, date, address of the users? Yes. Do you have search history collections? Yes, if the person has the search history turned on. Beacons such as Wi-Fi, GPS? Yes. Voice and conversation from the Google voice products? Only when consumers say, “Ok Google” and these options can be enabled/disabled by the user. Does Google have access to Gmail? Yes, we have access but there are specific policies to refrain from such an action. How long is the data captured for? It can be stored, and an option is given if users want to store it or not. How many people know these options can be turned on/off? The next question causes Mr. Pichai to say that identifiers such as name, age and sex are collected differently. Specific controls for voice activity and search history and specific choices are given to the user. Storage of data done is inevitably done for services like Gmail as consumers expect to receive information from the past. Furthermore, advertisement personalizations can be done by each user depending on their own preferences.

Rhode Island Representative Mr. Cicilline speaks about how the open internet has been compressed under the weight of a few dominant platforms that control the competition and the ideas that are viewed online. As a proponent of internet openness, will google bring to the end discrimination between rivals and businesses to google products. Mr. Pichai answers with an example such that when specifically looking at shopping, amazon was excluded. Google provides users with the best experience no matter the company that may be introduced. Next, the operating environment in China has been deteriorating with respect to censorship,and surveillance since Google made the decision to leave in 2010. An app-based search engine may be active in practice with the Chinese government and this would-be inconsistent with the current international framework and established laws. Google claims that an internal effort is taken but no discussions to actually launch a search product in China is active. This effort is taken as only an internal effort rather than with the Chinese government. The next question goes as follows; will Google launch a censored Chinese search engine product in China while Mr. Pichai is CEO? He answers that Google attempts to provide users with information and they want to establish new experiences for each user but actively there is no work being done in collaboration with the Chinese government.

R-Florida, Mr. Gaetz questions if Google has ever launched an investigation if political bias is impacting consumer experience and if employees may also influence Google’s algorithm? Mr. Pichai answers that there is no way such a thing can happen as to alter the algorithm, many steps must be taken. Groups in google can come together and the next question that arises is if these groups can somehow manipulate user experience and the database. There is a resist group such that it resists the agenda of President Donald Trump in Google that discourses with company time and during working hours with company infrastructure. Pichai claims he does not know of any such actions within the company and he would be more than happy to do a follow up with such a group if there exists one but as of his knowledge, no such work is actively being done in the company. Regarding Breitbart, Google Advertisements and hate speech, the representative from Florida questions why someone would have to hold their nose to do such work. There is freedom of expression and Google serves their publishers in such a work. A proper conduct can only be done with a group of employees and Google has yet to launch an investigation on any employee. If for example, a group of employees is conducting a resistance group on sites of the company to suppress conservative speech, why would there not be any investigation of such violations? Mr. Pichai answers that there are many checks and balances and if needed sanctioning is done properly. The council wants to know if there might be bad intent? Mr. Pichai claims that they have designed their system to refrain from such activities. The next question that arises is why any investigations for communications are not there that interfere with political bias leading to suppression of conservative viewpoints. Pichai answers that they would investigate if such information is needed.

The representative from the Rayburn office building, R-California, Eric Swalwell questions if the United States needs a national privacy law. CEO of Google claims that they are better off with an overarching data production framework for the users. As part of Russia’s attack on the democracy of the United States in 2016, there were advertisements done on many different platforms such as Google and Facebook and money were provided from Russia. How does Google confirm that such an attack does not happen again? Anytime Google has found invasive activity, it is reported, and they attempt their best to remain unbiased during the election campaign. Google Algorithm is based on local search results that come from a specialized index that is distinct from its original web database. Can google collect local business content from data collected from third parties through a page rank like quality score. Google claims to respond to user feedback and they try to get information to each user in a fast dependent manner such that it does not matter where the information is coming from. It may be from their competitors or directly from the Google database. These factors will change and accommodate to give the user a response in the quickest manner.

Representative of Louisiana, Mike Johnson challenges Google to prove that it does not suppress any conservative views to the committee. He first questions content removal from YouTube and how google ensures that content removed from YouTube is done without any philosophical bias? Google claims to make the YouTube platform for freedom of expression and they also enforce rules such that there are certain areas that have certain policies. How does google use machine learning to filter speech that is viewed as offensive? How are these Perspective providers ensuring such machine learning is sanctioning only the videos that need sanctioning? Pichai answers that Perspective comes from a sister organization, Jigsaw, and these criteria are defined by publishers as to what is acceptable and not. Flaggers do not remove any content but rather flags videos topics such as child safety and terrorism. No video was flagged on Google’s platform.

R-Pennsylvania, Keith Rothfus, states how some Google engineers manipulated search results that favoured one political bias in the future and how these employees had the mindset that they think they can influence an election? If this is possible? Mr. Pichai answers that he does not think his products are that powerful to influence an entire election and they try to have scrutiny in the company. Does google have political bias and how can it ensure ideological diversity among its employees? Google is situated in Northern California, but they have employees globally to allow diverse viewpoints and perspectives. Google employs ethical reasoning. The committee next progresses to the topic of China. Again, it is asked if Google designed a censored prototype to be used in China? Sundar Pichai claims that a prototype was never launched, and they had been working on it for months with almost 100 employees working on it at one time point. However, there are no plans to launching any search engine in China. The representative ends with how Sundar Pichai is a success story and how he is impressively leading such a big company.

Florida Representative, Val Demings, starts with saying that the service provided by Google must be properly integrated in the American system. Google helps to solve problems. Her concerns are around the sinners of data protection from users. If a consumer tells Google to not collect data, Google will not collect data. Does Google allow advertisers to target ads based on sensitive factors such as race, ethnicity, and religious affiliations? These factors are not included in advertising products. Google also has strict policies against predatory practices. How does Google make sure that information received in risk communities protects the consumer, how are they treated the same regarding fluent vs. poor communities? Google claims to have wide outreach and tries to minimize platform abuse regarding communities. An example of this is that many such changes are made in Google’s products and policies. They are currently trying to be more proactive in looking for certain changes and vulnerability and Google is happy to follow up in this context. How does Google work with law enforcement? Mr. Pichai gives some examples for how Google works with the law enforcement following this question. This teamwork is done during concerns expressing election interference, areas like child safety, fraud, malware, opioid crisis. Privacy is the greatest area where expectations are constantly changing, and Google attempts to ensure that these expectations are held.

Mr. Rutherford, Rep-Florida, looks back at the privacy policy and questions some of it. One of the major points in the policy states that Google’s data collection is applied when using Google service. His question addresses whether this applies when users double click a cookie. Pichai states that consent for data collection is received from the consumer. If a consumer does not have a google account but lands on a webpage with google advertisements, would they be using google services? As per Sundar Pichai’s understanding, they would be using google services and they may be subject to both the privacy platform of the publisher and Google’s ad platforms for their products. Does Google assistance report our voices in conversations? Google must feed commands as search query, and this is ultimately recorded if the google service is invoked such as when saying “okay google”. But these settings can easily be turned off and can be stored/ forgotten. Users likely do not understand the passively recorded processes from Google and more awareness should be spread on what information is being collected. How do you implant transparency of such information to the user? Google claims that they are trying to be as transparent as possible and are explicit about the information that is being collected.

Who makes the judgement call about the content moderations on Google? These calls are dependent on the platform in question. For example, regarding YouTube there are specific teams that also allow content creators to display their own concerns. The next question from the chairman is if Google has data sharing agreements from each app e.g., Amazon? This is not the case for user data. Device manufacturers can preload applications on android. Lastly, Mr. Sundar Pichai was asked to write a written answer about how the Google policy in Europe differs from the policy in the United States. He was thanked for attending the meeting and the hearing was concluded.

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