On Tuesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee, after months of escalating pressure. There were lots of issues to talk about — radicalization on YouTube, the company’s fraught relationship with China, and the staff revolt over Andy Rubin’s severance agreement, for a start — but members of Congress really just wanted to talk about bias.
“Google has long faced criticism for manipulating search results to censor conservatives,” Rep Lamar Smith (R-TX) told Pichai, citing studies by prominent Google critic Robert Epstein. “Those who write the algorithms get the results that they must want….In your opening statement you mentioned your desire to provide information that was without political bias. Clearly that’s not working. So what are you going to do to improve that situation?”
“Some of the studies you mentioned, we have investigated those. There are other studies that found issues with the methodology and sample size,” Pichai responded, “but let me step back and say, providing users with high-quality, accurate, and trusted information is sacrosanct to us.”
Over and over again, Pichai had to answer questions about bias, and there was no good answer to give. Of course, Google does intervene in Search results to make them more accurate, more useful or sometimes more beneficial to Google’s business. When those changes end up downranking someone, they tend to complain about bias — but everyone sees bias in a different place. More importantly, it’s hard to say what a truly neutral search engine would even look like, and the idea of “search neutrality” has fallen out of favor even among Google’s harshest critics. With no good answers, Pichai had no choice but to deflect the questions and hope Congress’s lack of tech savvy and sometimes bizarre lines of questioning would distract from the deeper problems in how we think about bias.
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