The Stew Reporting on government and politics

Congress grills Google exec to little effect

Politics | Washington cannot do much to regulate big tech, nor should it, experts say
by Harvest Prude
Posted 12/13/18, 04:59 pm

WASHINGTON—At a House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday on “Transparency & Accountability” that turned out to be remarkably short on both, Google CEO Sundar Pichai took the hot seat to answer lawmakers’ concerns about big tech.

Republicans hammered Pichai on whether his employees’ liberal-leaning political views had found their way into Google’s algorithms and search functions. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., pointed to leaked internal communications revealing an anti-conservative bias at Google and asked why the company hadn’t investigated a seeming “desire to suppress conservative political movements and conservative voices.” Pichai said Google would launch an investigation if it came out that employees were communicating about “manipulating our products,” which he denied had been the case.

A Pew study last summer found there is much distrust among Republicans when it comes to tech companies like Google. Eighty-five percent of Republicans believe it’s likely that social media sites censor political viewpoints with which their employees disagree, and 64 percent of Republicans think tech companies lean liberal. Tapping into this concern at the hearing, Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, asked why Googling Republican initiatives like the healthcare bill resulted in pages of mostly negative results: “How do you explain this apparent bias on Google’s part against conservative points of view?” Pichai said that algorithms “reflect what’s happening out there in the best objective manner possible … without regards to political ideology.”

Democrats leapt to the executive’s defense. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., mockingly asked why Googling “idiot” turned up photos of President Donald Trump. Pichai explained that the search uses hundreds of factors, including relevance and popularity, to determine the results. Lofgren triumphantly concluded, “So it’s not some little man sitting behind the curtain figuring out what we’re going to show the user?”

While lawmakers parried back and forth, Pichai continued to insist that Google maintains a neutral playing field. “We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions—and there is no shortage of them among our own employees.”

It has been a year of terrible optics for big tech companies, particularly from a conservative standpoint. Twitter has faced accusations of “shadow banning” prominent conservatives, Facebook has dealt with similar charges of censorship, and Google has suffered from a number of leaks revealing employees floated ideas that favored liberal voices. Tech executives have pushed back on claims their platforms exhibit systemic bias against conservatives and chalked up anecdotal evidence to mistakes.

Facebook and Twitter executives have sat through congressional hearings similar to Pichai’s. The meetings have inspired mocking video edits of tech leaders’ attempts to explain technology to lawmakers but have been short on concrete results. And some experts question whether the efforts of Congress are at all productive.

Zach Graves with the Lincoln Network, a free market–focused tech think tank, told me a lack of expertise is exacerbating communication problems with big tech companies. He said a serious conversation is needed on how these companies moderate speech, facilitate a plurality of voices, and treat user data and privacy, but “the price of entry for having that conversation is having a basic technical literacy in understanding how these technologies work.”

Graves said part of the problem was that Congress, due to budget cuts several years ago, scrapped the Office of Technology Assessment, an advisory body of technical and scientific experts. He also pointed out that private companies have a financial interest in keeping the public, and their competitors, in the dark about their technology’s inner workings.

Graves doesn’t believe there’s a “conspiracy to push down conservative outlets or voices,” but he acknowledged that the political disconnect between conservatives and Silicon Valley has engendered distrust.

Some believe Congress’ attempts to hold private companies accountable at all are misplaced. Diane Katz at the Heritage Foundation said there’s no evidence that the companies are engaged in illegal behavior, and anecdotes of bias aren’t the same thing.

“There are millions of people who are on Google, millions of searches … what we hear about are individual instances of search results coming up that may not have content that particular searcher thinks should be there,” she said. “What [Congress] did [at the hearing] and what has been done in past hearings is a sort of intimidation factor—if these companies don’t act in a way that representatives want, the next step is going to be regulation.”

Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Harnik Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Harnik Sen. Chuck Schumer (left) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi leave the White House on Tuesday after a meeting with President Donald Trump.

A long December

The odds of a partial government shutdown appeared to increase this week as President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats remained far apart on a compromise on funding for a border wall.

Congress has left itself little time to pass a series of spending bills by Dec. 21. Even with the likelihood of adding days to the legislative session to wrap up year-end business, Republicans have not yet agreed among themselves how to proceed.

The president wants $5 billion to construct a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, but Senate Democrats have said they would approve only $1.6 billion for border security. Spending bills in the Senate, where Republicans have a 51-49 majority, require 60 votes to pass, giving Democrats a significant role in the outcome. If the two sides fail to come to an agreement, about a quarter of the government, including the Department of Homeland Security, would be left without funds to continue operating.

Trump engaged in a testy exchange over the wall proposal with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., during a White House meeting Tuesday, with the president vowing not to support any measure that does not include the funding he wants for the wall.

Schumer said he would offer two options to keep the government open, neither of which would include the $5 billion figure.

“Unfortunately, it was clear that the president is clinging to his position of billions of dollars for an unnecessary, ineffective border wall,” Schumer said Wednesday. “President Trump will soon realize that his position will not result in a wall, but will result in a Trump shutdown.”

Trump called the looming shutdown a sign he was being tough on illegal immigration.

“I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country,” he said during Tuesday’s meeting. “So I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it.”

A long road of negotiations lies ahead. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday that senators should be prepared to work between Christmas and New Year’s to complete work on the budget and other outstanding issues. “Members should either prepare to cooperate and work together—or prepare for a long month,” he said. —Anne K. Walters

Getty Images/Photo by Justin Sullivan Getty Images/Photo by Justin Sullivan A magazine stand at a San Anselmo, Calif., supermarket featuring the National Enquirer

Enquirer publisher flips on Trump

American Media Inc. (AMI), the parent company of the National Enquirer, has agreed to work with prosecutors after admitting to coordinating hush money payments on behalf of then-candidate Donald Trump prior to the 2016 presidential election.

In a court filing Wednesday, the tabloid publisher admitted to passing along a payment of $150,000 from the Trump campaign to a woman who claimed to have had an affair with him. In the days before the 2016 election, The Wall Street Journal reported the payment was made to former Playboy model Karen McDougal. AMI had previously denied all involvement in the arrangement.

In the filing, the company said it paid the money to ensure she did “not publicize damaging allegations” about the president “and thereby influence the election.” The admission was made as part of an immunity agreement between AMI and New York prosecutors. —H.P.

Last-minute push for prison reform

The Senate could take up the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, known as the First Step Act, by the end of the week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has included the measure on a list of year-end priorities. The House overwhelmingly approved the bill in May, and President Donald Trump has indicated he will sign it.

Some GOP lawmakers, primarily Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, remain stalwartly opposed to the initiative. And some Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, want to hold out until they have more leverage in the new Congress to try and get more expansive reforms. But Trump pressured McConnell to bring the act up for a vote before the end of the year, and McConnell said Tuesday he would.

The bill would, among other things, boost rehabilitation efforts for federal prisoners and give judges more discretion when sentencing nonviolent offenders. —Lynde Langdon

Read more of The Stew Sign up for The Stew email
Harvest Prude

Harvest is a political reporter for WORLD's Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate. Harvest resides in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @HarvestPrude.

Read more from this writer