When Google CEO Sundar Pichai agreed to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, it created an important opportunity for federal lawmakers to address a range of important issues with one of the tech industry’s biggest and most important giants.
Alas, the Republican majority blew it. NBC News reported overnight:
After months of wrangling, members of Congress finally had Google CEO Sundar Pichai right where they wanted him on Tuesday – testifying in front of a House oversight committee.
But instead of data privacy, antitrust, the abuse of market power, China or any number of other crucial topics, partisanship in the form of Republican questions about political bias at Google dominated the House Judiciary session.
It’s a problem that so much of contemporary GOP politics is driven by baseless conspiracy theories. It’s a bigger problem that Republicans’ preoccupation with these baseless conspiracy theories ends up pushing aside real governing opportunities.
Slate highlighted some examples of House Republicans trying to offer proof of Google discriminating against conservatives – which turned out to be far funnier than the GOP members intended:
In arguing that Google relies too heavily on “liberal” Wikipedia, Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert admitted that his staff was altering his own Wikipedia page every night for two weeks, only to be rebuffed by the site’s editors. (Wikipedia guidelines state that editing an employer’s page is a “conflict of interest.”)
Iowa Rep. Steve King, after issuing several stern threats to impose regulations on Google to deal with political bias, ended his time asking why his granddaughter had come across a profane meme featuring his picture while using an iPhone. Pichai responded, “Congressman, iPhone is made by a different company.”
Part of the problem is that too many members of Congress still struggle to understand rudimentary details about technology. In 2006, then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who chaired the Senate committee that oversaw tech legislation, complained, “I just the other day got, an internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday and I just got it yesterday.” It led him to famously complain that the internet is “a series of tubes.”
Yesterday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing suggested there’s been limited progress in the last 12 years.
And while that obviously matters, let’s also not forget that Republicans, apparently desperate to portray themselves as victims of powerful liberal forces, have spent much of the last two years claiming that tech giants – Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al – are hatching nefarious schemes intended to hurt the right. It’s why, a variety of GOP leaders, including Donald Trump, have raised the prospect of government regulation of search engines and social-media companies.
But when asked to present any kind of evidence to substantiate the claims, Republicans fail, repeatedly and spectacularly. They tried again yesterday, only to find themselves literally laughed at.
A Washington Post report on yesterday’s hearing added:
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) complained that when he googled the Republican health-care bill or the GOP tax cuts the first several pages listed negative articles. “How do you explain this apparent bias on Google’s part against conservative points of view, against conservative policies? Is it just the algorithm, or is there more happening there?” Chabot asked.
“Congressman, I understand the frustration of seeing negative news, and, you know, I see it on me,” Pichai offered. “What is important here is we use the robust methodology to reflect what is being said about any given topic at any particular time. And we try to do it objectively, using a set of rubrics. It is in our interest to make sure we reflect what’s happening out there in the best objective manner possible. I can commit to you, and I can assure you, we do it without regards to political ideology. Our algorithms have no notion of political sentiment in it.”
But Chabot wasn’t having it. He told Pichai that conservatives believe Google is “picking winners and losers in political discourse.”
“There’s a lot of people that think what I’m saying here is happening,” Chabot said.
But that’s not an argument. “A lot of people” believe absurd Republican conspiracy theories because Republicans keep peddling absurd conspiracy theories. There are “a lot of people” who believe all kinds of nonsense, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the merit of the underlying ideas.
GOP lawmakers had a chance to do meaningful work yesterday with the CEO of one of the nation’s most important companies, but they couldn’t get out of their own way.