Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under There Is No Point

Last week, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee. By now, you’ve probably heard it didn’t go well. Texas Rep. Ted Poe was one of several committee members who brandished an iPhone and asked the Google CEO questions about whether they were tracking his phone. Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel asks What Was The Point Of Google’s Congressional Hearing?

Take Poe’s question. Its topic — data privacy and location tracking — is important, but the wording was unartful, and it revealed, immediately, a poor understanding of the workings of the technology to which it referred. Conversely, Pichai’s answer seemed to purposefully ignore the spirit of the question, focusing on semantics instead of a reasonable answer. (For example: “While I don’t know the particulars of your device, yes, many Google apps track granular location information.”) The end result? Nothing worthwhile.

Instead the roughly 210 minutes of hearing testimony were mostly devoted to shallow questions from lawmakers about political bias. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan devoted five minutes to asking about an email from a marketing executive at Google, grilling Pichai about individual employee efforts to help mobilize Latino voters. Rep. Lamar Smith spent his time spent his time citing studies with dubious methodology (the report’s author previously noted her methods were “not scientific”) alleging a deep political bias in Google’s news results. Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican, complained anecdotally about search results, claiming he only saw negative stories about his party’s Affordable Care Act repeal bills, suggesting a nefarious anti-conservative bias. Meanwhile, Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, used part of his five minutes to bemoan the Google search results for his own name — suggesting the search engine has a pro-conservative bias. In one instance, Iowa Rep. Steve King asked if Pichai would release the names of Google’s search engineers so they could be independently investigated for their own political beliefs.

Imagine having the power to force gigantic technology companies to answer for their failings, and choosing “sometimes when I look up my name I don’t like what I see” as your cause. And I know the Judiciary Committee isn’t necessarily equipped to handle issues of cutting-edge technology, but at this point it’s an issue for all of us, not just the nerds.