Updated at 3:19 p.m. ET
Google CEO Sundar Pichai made his public debut before Congress on Tuesday, spending much of his testimony countering Republicans’ allegations of anti-conservative bias in the company’s search results.
He also faced scrutiny of how much data Google collects on users and on the company’s work on a censored search tool for China.
Time and again, Republican lawmakers pressed Pichai on allegations of political bias in search results on Google and its video subsidiary YouTube. They suggested that some Google engineers might be manipulating the results to sideline views that are conservative or supportive of President Trump.
Google has long denied this, and Pichai did so repeatedly over almost four hours in front of the House Judiciary Committee.
“We use a robust methodology to reflect what is being said about any particular topic at any particular time,” he said. “It is in our interest to make sure we reflect what’s happening out there in the best objective manner possible. I can commit to you and I can assure you, we do it without regards to political ideology. Our algorithms do it with no notion of political sentiment.”
Google’s appearance on Capitol Hill comes at a time of high scrutiny for Silicon Valley. Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Facebook, Twitter and other companies are facing a downturn of public opinion as they struggle to strike a balance between serving up content that will engage users and reeling back the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Though Democrats have decried the anti-conservative accusations as political theater without evidence, this intense political focus on tech companies has opened a door to serious conversations about regulation. In September, a Justice Department meeting originally meant to address tech’s political bias instead united state attorneys general in an effort to rein in the industry.
On Tuesday, Pichai faced pointed questions about just how much data Google collects on users, especially about their location. The AP reported earlier this year that “several Google apps and websites store user location even if users have turned off Location History.” A report in The New York Times this week showed how detailed — and lucrative — location tracking can be.
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., zoomed in on the scale of data gathering by Google, as one of the tech giants whose business model relies on the sale of advertising using the vast knowledge about people who use their platforms or devices. He quizzed Pichai on a few specific data points:
Rep. Collins: Do you or do you not collect identifiers like name, age or address? Yes or no.
Google’s Pichai: If you’re creating an account, yes — and using an account, yes.
Collins: Specific search histories when a person types something into a search bar.
Pichai: If you have search history turned on, yes.
Collins: Device identifiers like IP address or IMEI.
Pichai: Depending on the situation, we could be collecting it, yes.
Collins: GPS signals, Wi-Fi signals, Bluetooth beacons.
Pichai: Would depend on the specifics, but there may be situations, yes.
[…] Collins: Contents of emails and Google documents.
Pichai: We store the data, but we don’t read or look at …
Collins: But you have access to them.
Pichai: As a company we have access to them, yes.
Pichai also faced many questions by lawmakers from both parties about the company’s project — code-named Dragonfly — to build a search engine adjusted to China’s censorship demands, blocking certain websites and search terms as determined by the Chinese government.
“Right now, there are no plans for us to launch a search product in China,” Pichai said repeatedly. The response indicated that the plan might change in the future, though Pichai said the company would be transparent with Congress about that.
Pichai confirmed that the project was underway for a while and at one point involved more than 100 people. “We explored what a search could look like if it were to be launched in a country like China,” he said.
This would have marked a return of a censored version of Google to China, which the company exited in 2010 after tensions with Beijing and a backlash in the United States. The company has been facing an outcry over the work on a censored search product since it was first revealed by the website The Intercept in August.
Lawmakers did not ask Pichai about Google’s recent decision to not renew its so-called Project Maven contract with the Pentagon, following protests from employees concerned that the company’s artificial intelligence could be used for drone strikes.
Google had also decided not to bid for a $10 billion cloud-computing contract with the Defense Department, saying that Google didn’t qualify for part of the work and that the company “couldn’t be assured” that the project would align with its corporate values for artificial-intelligence work.
Earlier this year, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, decided to not send an executive to a big hearing with other tech companies about disinformation. Incensed by Google’s absence at the time, lawmakers had left an empty seat marked with the company’s name.