Google CEO Sundar Pichai Testifies Before House Judiciary Committee About Data Collection Practices

This is his first public testimony in front of Congress

Sundar Pichai testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Getty Images
Headshot of Kelsey Sutton

Google CEO Sundar Pichai defended the company’s data collection practices and insisted that the company’s algorithms in its search results were absent of political bias considerations, he told lawmakers on Tuesday in a House hearing.

Pichai told lawmakers he was a “technology optimist … because I believe in people and their ability to use technology to improve their lives” and insisted that Google had “no plans” to launch a censored search engine in China (known as Project Dragonfly), which has become the subject of a great deal of scrutiny and concern. Pichai, who said Google was dedicated to “free expression,” pushing against claims coming from right-wing lawmakers that Google and other tech companies are biased against conservatives.

“I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way,” Pichai said in his opening statement to lawmakers. “To do otherwise would go against our core principals and business interests.”

The appearance before the House Judiciary Committee is the first time Pichai appeared before Congress in a public setting, but it’s just the latest example of a tech executive appearing before lawmakers publicly to answer questions about the companies’ business practices, approaches to data privacy and public influence.

Here are some of the major takeaways from the hearing.

Data collection and privacy

“I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way. ... To do otherwise would go against our core principals and business interests.”
—Sundar Pichai, Google CEO

A major focus from lawmakers Tuesday was the quantity of data Google collects from its billions of users. Lawmakers asked about which types of data Google collects, how often it collects it and the policies rolled out from Google that govern how the company collects personal information.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee, came out of the gate Tuesday morning grilling Pichai on how much data is collected on mobile phones. Goodlatte was unconvinced that Google users read the privacy settings and understand the full extent of the amount of data that Google is able to collect on users, including location data.

Pichai hedged on questions about the collection of different types of data, saying that much of those settings depend on the individuals’ privacy settings. Pichai also insisted that Google makes it easy for users to select their data privacy settings if they navigate to a privacy review page.

Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., pressed Pichai on how Google collects location data and asked whether Google had considered giving users educational programs so they can understand Google’s data collection and usage. Pichai said Google was always looking to improve its services.

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., referenced a New York Times investigation published on Monday that illustrated the extent of location data collection and how it can easily be tied to individuals.

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, held up his iPhone during the hearing and demanded Pichai tell him whether Google would be able to know if he were to move from where he was sitting to another location in the room. “Does Google know that I was sitting here and that I moved over there?” he repeatedly asked Pichai. Pichai essentially told Poe that it depended and that he wouldn’t be able to tell without looking at which apps Poe had and what his privacy settings were. Poe responded that the question should have a yes or no answer.

In response to questions from Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., Pichai took a page out of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s playbook. “We do not and would never sell user data,” Pichai said. “We do give consumers preferences about how their data is used for advertising.”

Project Dragonfly

Google has faced intense criticism and employee petitions and protests after The Intercept reported that the company was working on a censored search engine for use in China that, in accordance with the Chinese government’s censorship laws, would blacklist certain websites that contain information the government has deemed unlawful.

The project, codenamed Project Dragonfly, would mark an about-turn for Google on its policies for working in China if implemented. The company’s search engine has long been unavailable in the country, as have most major tech platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

“Right now there are no plans for us to launch a search product in China,” Pichai told Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., insisting that he would be “fully transparent” with lawmakers if that changed.

Allegations of bias

The algorithms at Facebook and Google are largely a black box, and consumers and legislators alike don’t understand how information is filtered and selected to be placed in front of them.

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.