Google CEO Sundar Pichai will be present at a private meeting with top Republican lawmakers this Friday to discuss the company’s controversial plans to relaunch a search product in China and perceived liberal bias of search results, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.
Last month, President Donald Trump kicked off a largely unfounded controversy, based on a misleading Fox News report, over censorship of conservative viewpoints in Google Search. Republicans have since latched onto the theory as a way to increase pressure on Silicon Valley over its largely liberal workforce and what are perceived to be actions taken exclusively to punish high-profile conservatives.
According to the WSJ, Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to meet with state attorneys general on Tuesday to discuss Google’s alleged censorship of conservatives. Tech firms have denied the existence of liberal bias in products, and Google has pushed back against key Trump inaccuracies, but it sounds as if Pichai will be forced to answer questions nonetheless. The meeting is being organized by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Late last week, Pichai sent an email to employees, which was obtained by The New York Times, in which he stated outright that Google has never influenced search results for political purposes and has no plans to do so in the future.
Pichai also plans to attend a public hearing later this year held by the House Judiciary Committee following the November midterm elections, after Google co-founder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page notably declined to show up to a Senate Intel Committee hearing on election interference earlier this month.
Page’s absence was widely decried by Capitol Hill lawmakers, who saw it is a display of arrogance on behalf of Google’s corporate leadership. Google offered Kent Walker, its chief legal officer and senior vice president of global policy, but the offer was declined and Walker’s advance public testimony was not entered into the record.
The willingness of US technology executives to show up in Washington to address growing concerns of monopolistic market position — as well as the abetting of election interference, fake news, and other missteps and perceived wrongs — has become a contentious issue in recent months. Executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google have all attended numerous hearings regarding Russian interference in the US 2016 election, among other topics, and it’s become a trend to see high-level figures in the tech industry offering mea culpas to Congress and pledges to do better.
In addition to mending relationships over Page’s absence, Pichai will also be addressing Google’s plans to relaunch a search product for the Chinese market, a move that has resulted in widespread criticism given the likelihood such a product would be heavily censored and would aid in China’s use of information control to maintain social and political order.
Earlier this year, Google canceled a US Department of Defense contract related to providing artificial intelligence-powered software to analyze drone footage after outside criticism and especially intense internal protests that resulted in numerous resignations. Taken together, Google’s willingness to deviate from its now-retired “don’t be evil” mantra to work with governments, the military, and repressive regimes may have a significant negative impact on public perception of the company and its products. That could in turn influence legislation, and Pichai may be headed to Washington to help Google avoid future regulation and remain in Congress’ good graces.