On Tuesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sat in front of the House Judiciary Committee for a couple of hours to explain how the tech company collects data and deploys its algorithms.
It was the first time Pichai testified in front of Congress, and it’s becoming clear that it won’t be his last, as the tech industry is increasingly at the center of American life. Google, for its part, has been at the center of the media industry for two decades. With that backdrop, Adweek spoke with insiders about their thoughts on how Pichai performed and where we could be headed.
Jason Kint, CEO, Digital Content Next
I don’t agree with the takes that are out there that the big tech CEO just ran over Congress again, or that Congress is tech-illiterate, like the kind of stuff we heard out of the Mark Zuckerberg hearing in the spring, that being the most comparable kind of hearing with a big CEO. They’re becoming smarter with their questions, and I think the staff probably is, too. Repetition of these hearings is important, and I was much more optimistic about the level of questions, for one.
I almost hesitate to point out individual [lawmakers], because I heard a lot of people zoning on the same sort of topics, and even if we went off that topic of data and antitrust and went into bias, search bias and these other questions, they are, I think, probably a different path to the same destination—which is that Google has enormous scale and isn’t very transparent, isn’t well understood and they’ve built a fortress that is preventing a lot of innovation among companies trying to compete with them. A lot of the questions pointed back to that same larger issue.
In regards to the moments where Rep. [Ted] Poe held up his iPhone and asked whether Google could track him walking across the room was a reasonable question. “I saw a lot of coverage where people tried to make the point that it was an iPhone and not a Google device,” Kint said, “but frankly, Google can track a lot of that stuff off the iPhone, too.”
Collin Colburn, analyst, Forrester
Is it really surprising Google won’t share its search engine algorithm? Congress seemed enamored with trying to unwrap how the algorithm works, but Pichai followed Google’s long history of not fully disclosing how the algorithm works. I think the bigger highlight for me was that Google seems more open to regulation than Facebook does.
Will Critchlow, CEO, Distilled
Pichai was never troubled by any of the lines of questioning, in my opinion.
Sidetracking into debates about partisan bias that didn’t start from solid data or technical foundations were easy for him to brush off.
There were tons of technical misunderstandings and basic questions, which were opportunities for him to run down the clock while appearing helpful.
China was the one area where his answers seemed shaky, but his questioners seemed to take his answers pretty much at face value. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any really deep questions explored or feel the prospect of serious oversight happening any time soon.
In my opinion, it’s a real shame we didn’t see questions going deeper into the monopoly and competition issues or into the huge problems at YouTube that resemble the manipulation and fake news problems we have seen Facebook be criticized heavily for.
Jeremy Hull, svp of innovation, iProspect
I’m not surprised that Sundar Pichai was asked about Google’s collection of users’ location data. Today, people are sharing more information than ever before, both actively and passively. Google’s aim has always been to thoughtfully utilize this data at the individual level to personalize and continuously improve each individual’s experience with their products, and at an aggregate level to identify trends. I think the Android operating system is quite transparent about the data that is collected—when I set up my new Pixel 3 phone a few weeks ago, there were multiple prompts that disclosed the type of information collected, which invited me to opt in or opt out, and, as Pichai mentioned, Google regularly contacts users via email and invites them to review their account settings.
Ultimately, I believe more and more people are willing to share data like location history as long as they see a tangible benefit. For example, Google Photos automatically labels and categorizes pictures based on where they were taken, making it easy to find pictures you took on last year’s vacation at a moment’s notice. Google Maps uses aggregate location information to provide incredibly accurate travel time estimates based on the pool of location information being passively shared by Google device users. As long as there is a tangible benefit to the consumer and clear explanations of what data is being shared, I believe people will continue to become more comfortable exchanging their data for these kinds of benefits.
Jason Hartley, svp, national head of search & paid social, 360i
One of the main takeaways is the sheer breadth of the knowledge gap in Congress as to how Google—and really technology platforms in general—actually work. For those outside of our industry it’s an understandably complex landscape, and it would be wise for technology providers to begin diligently educating Congress. Otherwise, if government regulation begins, it could be rife with unintended consequences.
Jordan Koene, Chief Evangelist, Searchmetrics
Google’s algorithm looks at results and, based on countless factors, establishes which are deemed most relevant. This means that there is probably no attempt, either conscious or unconscious, to provide any kind of fair balance or reflect multiple sides of an argument. Expertise, accuracy and authority are considered, but fairness in a traditional sense simply isn’t part of their calculation. This makes it easily possible for results to appear biased, even if this is not down to any deliberate action on Google’s part. As an example, one study we conducted of keywords related to ‘Trump’ found that Google displayed results that were, on the whole, more negative toward the president, when compared with the equivalent results on other search engines like Bing. The question is whether we should accept this or whether we should expect Google to put more effort into ensuring balance in its results.