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Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s testimony to Congress was a waste of time

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Sundar Pichai’s three-and-a-half-hour testimony before the House Judiciary committee on Tuesday was noticeably lacking in enlightening answers.

The Google CEO was there as a witness to talk about transparency and accountability at the Californian technology giant, and it was a rare opportunity for serious scrutiny of Google’s — and the broader tech industry’s — data collection policies and social impact.

Instead, Republican lawmakers fixated on the notion that tech companies like Google are deliberately biased against conservatives, trying to censor them from social networks and search results. The cited random anecdotes, and disputed studies.

Tennessee’s Steve Cohen complained he didn’t like the negative news stories he saw when he searched his name. Texas’ Louie Gohmert ranted about Wikipedia undoing one of his staffer’s edits, without ever actually asking a question. Iowa’s Steve King, a congressman repeatedly accused of racism, nonsensically asked why an unflattering message about him flashed up on an iPhone being used by one of his grandchildren. Pichai carefully responded: “Congressman, iPhone is made by a different company.”

(Democratic congressperson Ted Lieu quipped: ” to some of my colleagues across the aisle, if you’re getting bad press articles and bad search results, don’t blame Google or Facebook or Twitter — consider blaming yourself.”)

Five minutes just isn’t enough

Fox News/YouTube

On the relatively few occasions Pichai was pushed more substantially on issues, his reticence and obtuseness was telling.

Asked repeatedly about “Dragonfly,” Google’s efforts to build a censored search engine for China, Pichai clearly avoided answering questions, giving only the mealy-mouthed answer that Google wasn’t planning to launch it “right now.” When pushed, he said more than 100 employees were working on the project at one point — far less than a 300-figure cited by The Intercept, which initially broke the news of Dragonfly’s existence.

In another exchange, asked about whether Google was tracking a congressman’s cellphone, Pichai said he’d need to check the settings, which may have been technically correct but sidestepped the obvious point that Google is tracking (at least) hundreds of millions of people’s devices, and not necessarily with their informed consent.

But other key subjects, from Google’s involvement in military contracts to how the executive team approved huge pay-outs for employees accused of sexual misconduct, were never mentioned at all.

One big problem was the format itself, something that has caused issues in previous hearings featuring technology executives like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Congresspeople only have five minutes each to ask their questions, which is barely enough time to even get into specifics, especially when Pichai (or any other witness, for that matter) spends half of that time giving boiler-plate answers and filibustering.

Fewer and better-informed questioners, with more time to use each, could produce vastly more illuminating answers from the Committee’s witnesses. If Sundar Pichai’s hearing taught us anything, it’s that this model for hearings is broken.

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