A few details revealed about the “Wizard of Oz”-like group offered a peek behind Google’s opaque search methodology curtain, as House Judiciary Committee members probed CEO Sundar Pichai Tuesday about how it handles queries. However, Pichai apparently did little to calm Republican lawmakers’ concerns over suspected political bias, nor did he shed much light on how Google produces what he called “neutral” results.
Throughout the 3.5-hour-long hearing, Republican Congress members posed skepticism about how the search engine selects and ranks user queries — often suggesting Google is biased against conservative voices.
“By ranking pages, Google search always favors one page over another. This kind of bias appears harmless,” Committee Chair Rep. William Goodlatte (R-MA) said in his opening statement.
“After all, the point of a search is to discriminate among multiple relevant sources to find the best answer. This process, however, turns much more sinister with allegations that Google manipulates its algorithm to favor the political party it likes, the ideas that it likes, or the products that it likes.”
Republican lawmakers are not the only critics who accuse Google of producing biased results. Gabriel Weinberg, CEO and founder of search engine DuckDuckGo, argues that, political bias aside, Google’s search results are fundamentally biased because they are based on identifying information gained from the device on which the search is performed.
“Google is manipulating search and news results to bias them towards what it thinks it knows about people, based on the troves of personal data it has on them,” Weinberg told Yahoo Finance. “This filtering and censoring of search and news results is putting users in a bubble of information that mirrors and exacerbates ideological divides.”
In a study released last week, DuckDuckGo concluded that Google is providing unique search results for different users who search for identical terms, within seconds and minutes of each other. Its results are consistent with an earlier study by the company that Weinberg says inspired a similar study commissioned by the Wall Street Journal in 2012.
“When you access any website your computer is automatically sending information about itself,” Weinberg said. “That information can be used to uniquely target you and identify you, such as IP address, type of browsers, operating system versions, installed fonts, screen sizes, all those things that make your computer unique.”
Google’s search result customization, which some might call bias, he says, is possible because each user’s array of identifying information installed on their device looks a little different from the person next to them.
“They know a lot more than search, browsing, and purchase history,” Weinberg said.
“If you sign out of Google and go to private ‘incognito’ mode, they still know it’s your device, so they can still use all your past search history to tailor those results, even though you’re not logged in.”
“I think people think if they log out or are in private browsing that they are anonymous, but it’s not anonymous at all.,” Weinberg said. “And it’s a completely black box and opaque to consumers.”
‘We build our products in a neutral way’
During Tuesday’s hearing, Pichai told the Committee the assumption that Google’s results are biased was wrong.
“I can commit to you and I can assure you we [create algorithms] without regards to political ideology. Our algorithms have no notion of political sentiment in it.”
Still, Pichai’s assurances came with few specifics as to how Google’s algorithm writers achieve neutrality.
“We build our products in a neutral way,” Pichai told Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH). Responding to questions from Rep. Jackson Lee (D-TX), the Google CEO said, “We approach our work without any political bias.”
More specifically, Pichai said Google crawls and stores copies of billions of website pages in its index. The search engine then takes an entered keyword and matches it against the web pages, and ranks the pages based on over 200 “signals.”
“Things like relevance, freshness, popularity, how other people are using it,” determine the results, Pichai told committee members. “And based on that, you know, at any given time, we try to rank and find the best results for that query.”
However, “what’s best” is relative, argued republican congressman Steven King (R-IA).
“Who establishes the parameters by which the algorithms are written?” he asked.
The parameters, Pichai said, are set by Google’s 1,000-plus member Search Team, a department comprised of its senior most engineers, who typically have long tenure with the company.
“Does anybody outside of Google know who these 1,000 people are?” King asked, wanting also to know if Search Team engineers are vetted for social media account activity and personal ideology.
“Normally we don’t,” Pichai said. “As a company, we have allowed people to express themselves, but we make it clear that how we build our products is done with great care and thought focused on giving users the information they’re looking for.”
Alexis Keenan is a New York-based reporter for Yahoo Finance. She previously produced live news for CNN and is a former litigation attorney. Follow her on Twitter at @alexiskweed