Pichai Testimony Unveils Lack of Technical Understanding on Congress' Part

Dec 13, 2018

In what may seem like one of the more comically surreal moments of the Trump administration, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai testified in front of Congress to answer questions like, why does a picture of Trump show up if you Google the word “idiot.” It seems like a silly question, but it shows something deeper—many of our elected officials still don’t understand the internet.

Rep Lamar Smith (R-TX) said, “Those who write the algorithms get the results that they must want…” Algorithms are complicated and take many things into consideration—like whether or not a site is reputable, which is often determined, in part, by the sites that are linking to it. So, FOX News rankings often suffer because of the sheer number of disreputable sites that link to it.

Russell Brandom of The Verge may have said it best, “Of course, Google does intervene in Search results to make them more accurate, more useful or sometimes more beneficial to Google’s business. When those changes end up downranking someone, they tend to complain about bias — but everyone sees bias in a different place. More importantly, it’s hard to say what a truly neutral search engine would even look like, and has fallen out of favor even among Google’s harshest critics.” 

While Pichai tried to explain to the panel that Google’s algorithms use a robust set of data to report what is being said about a topic at any given moment, many of the Republicans pushed back asking if Pichai had ever asked an employee to manipulate results. It makes you wonder if these politicians think there are people hand-selecting search results for every query.

Greg Sparrow, senior vice president and general manager at CompliancePoint, sees other forces at play. He says, “Sundar Pichai’s testimony in front of congress yesterday highlighted several issues the company is struggling with as it continues to grow. In the last decade, Google enjoyed a darling relationship with the press and with lawmakers alike.” But Sparrow sees that waning now. He continued, “They are trying to walk a delicate balance on issues such as censorship of the internet in China and its collection of one of the largest troves of personal information in the world. Google must balance its need for shareholder value and growth with the changing political winds around data privacy and trade policies with China.  It’s a difficult time to be a successful global company whose business is monetizing people’s personal information.”

That being said, the panel seemed more concerned with how they were being represented in search results and whether Google is “picking winners and losers” than their constituents privacy.