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Google CEO Questioned on Privacy and Political Bias at Congressional Hearing

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, testifies before the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing titled “Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices,” on Tuesday, December 11, 2018. Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

Google's chair was filled at Tuesday morning's hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.

The Mountain View, California-based company sent chief executive officer Sundar Pichai to Washington, D.C., for a hearing titled "Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and its Data Collection, Use, and Filtering Practices."

In August, Google drew ire from both sides of the political aisle after it refused to send a CEO-level executive to a senate hearing on election interference. Google instead offered to send chief legal officer Kent Walker, who was rejected.

"I wanted to thank Sundar Pichai for testifying on Capitol Hill," said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. "We appreciate and note your willingness to travel here and answer our questions."

Pichai's appearance may have worked in Google's favor, but the tech giant still faced scrutiny from representatives concerned with its data collection and use practices.

Republican Rep. Robert Goodlatte, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, kicked off the hearing with questions on privacy. He said consumers may not be aware of how much personal data is being collected, where that data is being used, and for how long.

"Google is able to collect an amount of information about its users that would even make the NSA blush," Goodlatte said.

Rep. Ted Deutch and Rep. Stephen Cohen, both Democrats, questioned Pichai on Google's data collection and the company's efforts to educate users of privacy and available settings.

Party ties were also bridged by concern over Google's alleged plan to build a censored search engine with the Chinese government. McCarthy said Google is being used to strengthen China's "system of control." Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee later added the project "would hurt Chinese citizens" if its increases censorship and location monitoring.

Pichai repeatedly said Google had "no plans" to launch in China. But following a series of questions from Rep. Keith Rothfus, Pichai told the committee Google "explored what search could look like" in China in a long-term project that at times had more than 100 people working on it.

Rep. David Cicilline submitted a letter signed by colleagues and civil rights activists opposing the Google project.

Republican representatives also pushed Pichai on political bias in Google's search results and whether employee preferences impact its algorithm. A leaked video showing Google leaders shock over the 2016 election results sparked allegations of liberal bias at the company earlier this year.

"There's a very strong conviction on this side of the aisle that the algorithms are written with a bias against conservatives," said Republican Rep. Steven King.

Rep. Steven Chabot said he once had to scroll through four pages of Google results to find positive coverage of the American Health Care Act bill to repeal the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act. He said he faced similar struggles to find positive coverage around the Trump administration's changes to tax reform.

Other leaders prompted Pichai to investigate Google employees' political leanings and whether they can manipulate search results to hide conservative content.

Pichai said Google doesn't "agree with the methodology" of cited research from psychologist Robert Epstein, which found a liberal bias in Google results. He said Google's search engine draws its results from user feedback and can't be manipulated by individual employees.

"I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to

operate that way," Pichai said. "To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our

business interests."