Rep. Lamar Smith Gets Smacked Down After Trying to Google-Splain to Company Chief: That’s ‘Not Even Possible’
CEO of Google Sundar Pichai is testifying before Congress today and the back-and-forth has been, if not illuminating about questions on how Google operates, at least revealing about the communication barrier between the tech sector and D.C.
The viral moments from this hearing will fuel memes for millennia. (To any Senators or Representatives reading this, “viral” is not medical in this context, and memes are… well honestly you probably should avoid memes. They aren’t for you.)
In one particular exchange, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) asked Pichai about the manipulation of search results by Google or subsets of Google employees in ways that are biased against conservatives or conservative publications.
Or at least, that’s what Alexander tried to ask. In his opening remarks, the Senator referenced a “study” that was actually just an observation of anecdotal evidence (and was not presented as a study or scientific measure in the first place) that had previously been cited by President Donald Trump. He offered other sources of information as well, to build a case of bias.
“Mr. Pichai, let me ask my first question about those examples of political bias that I just mentioned, and you’re going to hear others too. In the opening statement, you mentioned your desire to provide information that was without political bias,” he said. “Clearly, that’s not working. What are you going to improve that situation?
Pichai began his answer by stating that “some of the studies you mentioned, we have investigated those, there are other studies that have looked at it, that have found issues with the methodology and the sample size.” He then moved on to the broader question.
“Let me step back and say providing users with high quality, accurate, and trusted information, it is sacrosanct to us. It’s what our principles are, and our business interests, our natural long-term incentives are aligned with that,” he said. “We want to serve users everywhere. We need to earn their trust in doing so.”
Skipping over the rationale, Smith returned to his original premise. “What actions are you going to take to try to counter the political bias in some of those examples that I just gave? I mean, they are irrefutable, so,” he said. “It occurs, you have to take some responsibility for that bias, what do you intend to do about it?”
Pichai repeated that there were problems with the sources Smith cited and offered to provide more information to the Congressman’s office to support that. He also said they do their own checking. “Today we use some very robust methodology, and we have been doing for 20 years. Making sure that results are accurate is what we need to do well and we work hard to do that.”
The exchange was well off the rails by that point. Smith was ill-equipped to even ask the question. He didn’t know what exactly bias would look like on a Google results page, or how it might be achieved. He didn’t ask Pichai what exactly he meant by “accurate” or whether there were any subjective analysis points used to arrive at the determination of accuracy. And for his part, Pichai was responding the way every business CEO in American history has responded when testifying about their company: with minimalist, careful replies that avoid specifics and a constant restatement of the company’s commitment to being the best at whatever it is they do.
Smith stumbled forward anyway, asking “what does methodology have to do with the fact that 96% of the references to Trump are from liberal media?” It’s hardly even a question, as it assumes facts that are not established and offers no specific point to refute.
“We have looked at results on our top news category. We find that we have a wide variety of sources including sources from the left and sources from the right. And we are committed to making sure there are diverse perspectives,” said Pachai. This, again, doesn’t actually address the question of whether it is possible for a political bias within the company to affect which results are deemed accurate or shown to consumers.
Smith didn’t notice, though, and powered through, claiming he was citing a Democrat’s study on the results, presumably to address the question of bias in his own references, and then stating that there is a “difference of opinion as to the degree or amount of political bias.”
He asked if Google would allow a third party to review their results instead of people they appointed. Pichai said their results have been evaluated by independent third parties. Smith said what about independent third parties who were not selected by Google. Pichai said they didn’t select those groups and that he would happily provide the results of those evaluations. Smith simply said he disagreed and that Google did choose them and wants Google to allow different third parties to review their results.
Finally, Smith said that Google has never sanctioned any employee for manipulating search results and asked Pichai to confirm.
“Very quickly,” said Pichai as time ran down, “it’s not possible for an individual employee or groups of employees to manipulate our search results, yo know, we have a robust framework–”
Interrupting, Smith again disregarded the content of the response and simply told the Google CEO that he “disagrees” with him about the technical and procedural aspects of the company Pichai actually runs, and that humans “can manipulate the process.”
“It is a human process at its base,” he said without foundation, apparently trying to explain Google to Google.
Obviously, a better question than “have you punished anyone” would have been “do humans have any part in determining how the search results display what is considered news?”
Because, according to internal Google emails obtained by the Daily Caller, and in a previous instance, separate emails reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, people do have a hand, and have tried to use that hand. Pichai may have had a stellar answer for that question, but we’ll never know, because instead we have elderly members of congress going “series of tubes” about Hillary Clinton’s search placement.
It was a farcical display.
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