Google CEO Sundar Pichai took his turn in the congressional hot seat on Tuesday, where lawmakers grilled him on everything from Google’s data collection practices to its controversial search engine project in China.
Investors didn’t appear too perturbed by the grilling, with shares of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, trading 1.19% higher on Tuesday.
But industry experts who tuned in to the multi-hour grilling said that Pichai’s responses are unlikely to satisfy lawmakers who are increasingly zeroing in on Big Tech — from both sides of the aisle. Data privacy and regulation are among the issues that could draw bipartisan support, particularly with Democrats assuming control of the House of Representatives in January 2019.
“Sundar Pichai’s first appearance before Congress went as expected, which is to say not very well,” said Shane Green, CEO of data management app Digi.me. “As mild-mannered and thoughtful as he appeared, he simply wasn’t going to win any points from the members of the House Judiciary Committee on the issue of transparency, which remains the Achilles heel of Google. The black box nature of so much of what they do and making slippery statements like ‘Google does not sell personal data’ results in people assuming the worst.”
Thus far, Alphabet has avoided many of the scandals that have plagued Facebook (FB – Get Report) for its handling of user data. But it’s likely that Pichai’s sprawling testimony could raise more questions as U.S. lawmakers contemplate how to regulate big tech.
Lawmakers on Tuesday, tried to drill down into the inner workings of Google’s search algorithm, even performing live Google searches and asking Pichai to describe how the results were compiled. Congressman Ted Lieu (D-California) Googled two of his colleagues in Congress, Steve Scalise and Steve King, and demonstrated the positive or negative search results of both, concluding that “if you’re getting negative search results, stop doing negative things. Don’t blame Google,” Lieu said.
Beyond politically-oriented search results, Pichai was also forced to defend Google’s approach to gathering and using data, which many have criticized as far too opaque for the average user.
Google’s tracking of user locations — and how that information affects what results are delivered — emerged as a focal point the testimony. Recently, Google faced a GDPR complaint charging that its location tracking practices, used to deliver ads, are deceptive to users. And some lawmakers echoed those concerns, suggesting that Google is not transparent enough with how it gathers users’ data, and what the data is used for.
“Numerous members of Congress specifically asked Mr. Pichai how Google’s data collection in regard to location tracking works, and even if switched off in privacy settings, if location information is still being collected,” noted Dimitri Sirota, CEO of BigID, which helps companies with data privacy compliance. “Although polite and soft spoken in his responses, it was clear that Mr. Pichai did not have the answers to mitigate these concerns, and he did nothing to slow the inevitable — Federal regulation curtailing the way companies obtain, use, govern and account for personal information of users.”
When asked whether he felt the U.S. needed federal data laws similar to Europe’s GDPR, Pichai did say he thought the industry might be “better off with more of an overarching data protection framework for users.”
And although the hearing may have done little to pry open the black box of Google’s algorithms, Pichai did make one notable concession.
Asked if Google or YouTube would be willing to make changes in support of a healthier civic dialogue, even if it meant a drop in engagement, Pichai replied: “Absolutely Mr. Chairman…we have always focused on long-term goals towards user satisfaction.”