Congress will grill Google's CEO this week — here's what to expect

When big tech executives were invited to testify before Congress in September, Google (GOOG,GOOGL) opted to be represented by an empty seat rather than send its CEO, Sundar Pichai.

That will change on Tuesday, Dec. 11, when Pichai will testify at a hearing all about Google before the House Judiciary Committee, called Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices.

That hearing will require transparency about things the company prefers to keep opaque, starting with how it ranks search results, and Pichai is unlikely to appreciate that line of questioning. But if the committee’s members put on the same grandstanding exercise in victimology that we saw in aJuly questioning of executives from Facebook (FB), Google and Twitter (TWTR), spectators shouldn’t be happy either.

So while Tuesday’s grilling of Pichai might leave us with a better understanding of how Google decides what it thinks we want to see, it could prove to be yet another Silicon Valley vs. Washington contest that ends in a 0-0 tie.

A bad precedent

The subject of how Google’s algorithms decide which pages and news stories match our interests certainly deserves cross-examination. The company has repeatedly had to apologize forserving up conspiracy theorists among news results and YouTube recommendations and has struggled to stop various sorts ofad fraud.

But the last time the House Judiciary Committee tackled content-filtering practices, the results weredreadful. Most of the Republican members used up their airtime to lob unfounded accusations that Facebook, Google, and Twitter were mean to their team. For instance, Rep. Steven King (R.-Louisiana) complained that Facebook wassending less traffic to a fake news mill called the Gateway Pundit, while Rep. Lamar Smith (R.-Texas) offered an evidence-free claim thatGoogle blocked searches for Jesus, Chick-fil-A, and Catholicism.

The one committee member todefend these companies’ free-market rights to run their own platforms was Rep. Ted Lieu (D.-California).

“My fellow conservatives need to be more careful about jumping to conclusions about bias, particularly when there are more mundane explanations available if a little energy is spent trying to understand how the technology works,” said Zach Graves, head of policy at the free-market groupLincoln Network.

Some of the committee’s recent ventures exploring social media had “more of a circus than serious conversation,” Graves added.

At least Google is sending its CEO instead of underlings who don’t set policy — as it did forhearings in early September, a decision that did not go well for the company.

Related: Google CEO Sundar Pichai:

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Google Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai attends a session of the fourth World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, December 3, 2017. REUTERS/Aly Song
Google's CEO Sundar Pichai speaks on stage during a conference tagged 'Google for Nigeria' in Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos, July 27, 2017. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye
Google Inc CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during a launch event in San Francisco, California, U.S. October 4, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks on stage during the annual Google I/O developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks on stage during the annual Google I/O developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Google CEO Sundar Pichai delivers his keynote address during the Google I/O 2016 developers conference in Mountain View, California, U.S. May 18, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Sundar Pichai, Senior Vice President for Products, delivers his keynote address during the Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco, California May 28, 2015. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president of products, speaks during a presentation at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona March 2, 2015. Ninety thousand executives, marketers and reporters gather in Barcelona this week for the telecom operators Mobile World Congress, the largest annual trade show for the global wireless industry. REUTERS/Albert Gea (SPAIN - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS TELECOMS)
Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Google Chrome, speaks during Google I/O Conference at Moscone Center in San Francisco, California June 28, 2012. REUTERS/Stephen Lam (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president of Android, Chrome and Apps, speaks about wearables during his keynote address at the Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco June 25, 2014. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Chrome at Google, discusses recent advancements and changes to Chrome during the keynote address at the Google I/O Developers Conference in the Moscone Center in San Francisco, California, May 11, 2011. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCI TECH BUSINESS)
WUZHEN, CHINA - DECEMBER 03: Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks during the 4th World Internet Conference on December 3, 2017 in Wuzhen, China. The 4th World Internet Conference - Wuzhen Summit themed with 'Developing digital economy for openness and shared benefits -- building a community of common future in cyberspace.' is held from Dec 3 to 5 in Wuzhen of Zhejiang. (Photo by Du Yang/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images)
WUZHEN, CHINA - DECEMBER 03: Google CEO Sundar Pichai attends the opening ceremony of the 4th World Internet Conference on December 3, 2017 in Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province of China. The 4th World Internet Conference - Wuzhen Summit themed with 'Developing digital economy for openness and shared benefits -- building a community of common future in cyberspace.' is held from Dec 3 to 5 in Wuzhen of Zhejiang. (Photo by VCG via Getty Images)
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks during the Google I/O Annual Developers Conference in Mountain View, California, U.S., on Wednesday, May 17, 2017. Google's artificial intelligence-based voice Assistant is on more than 100 million devices now, and the company is leveraging a longtime competitor to expand the technology to even more people.�Photographer: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - MAY 17: Google CEO Sundar Pichai delivers the keynote address at the Google I/O 2017 Conference at Shoreline Amphitheater on May 17, 2017 in Mountain View, California. The three-day conference will highlight innovations including Google Assistant. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
NEW DELHI, INDIA JANUARY 4: Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during Digital Unlocked Google event at Taj palace on January 4, 2017 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
KHARAGPUR, INDIA - JANUARY 5: Google CEO Sundar Pichai interacts with students at IIT Kharagpur campus on January 5, 2017 in Kharagpur, India. For Pichai, it was an emotional homecoming, his first visit to his alma mater since he graduated from IIT Kharagpur in 1993. (Photo by Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
NEW DELHI, INDIA JANUARY 4: Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during Digital Unlocked Google event at Taj palace on January 4, 2017 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
KHARAGPUR, INDIA - JANUARY 5: Google CEO Sundar Pichai interacts with students at IIT Kharagpur campus on January 5, 2017 in Kharagpur, India. For Pichai, it was an emotional homecoming, his first visit to his alma mater since he graduated from IIT Kharagpur in 1993. (Photo by Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks during the company's Cloud Next '17 event in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. The Cloud Next conference brings together industry experts to discuss the future of cloud computing. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Google Inc CEO, Sundar Pichai (C) talks to a group of woman known as 'Internet Sathis' who learn mobile internet from Google and then teach other villagers, in Gokulpur village some 140 kms west of Kolkata on January 5, 2017. / AFP / Chandan KHANNA (Photo credit should read CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)
CEO of Google Inc. Sundar Pichai looks on as he attends a meeting about partnering with small business in New Delhi on January 4, 2017. / AFP / Dominique Faget (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
Google Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai gestures as he addresses students during a forum at The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur in Kharagpur, some 120kms west of Kolkata on January 5, 2017. / AFP / Chandan KHANNA (Photo credit should read CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks during a news conference in New Delhi, India, on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017. Google expects to have a dedicated cloud region for India later this year, Pichai said. Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Google Inc CEO, Sundar Pichai (C) talks to a group of woman known as 'Internet Sathis' who learn mobile internet from Google and then teach other villagers, in Gokulpur village some 140 kms west of Kolkata on January 5, 2017. / AFP / Chandan KHANNA (Photo credit should read CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)
Google CEO Sundar Pichai during a visit to Argyle Primary School, in London, alongside Minister for Digital Policy Matt Hancock, as Google announced plans to bring VR technology to one million schoolchildren in the UK as part of a new learning initiative. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images)
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks during an event at Google's Kings Cross office in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. After being criticized for not paying its fair share of British tax, Alphabet Inc.s Google unit is trying to show its a good corporate citizen by offering five hours of free digital skills training to all U.K. residents. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks during an event at Google's Kings Cross office in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. After being criticized for not paying its fair share of British tax, Alphabet Inc.s Google unit is trying to show its a good corporate citizen by offering five hours of free digital skills training to all U.K. residents. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., pauses during an event at Google's Kings Cross office in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. After being criticized for not paying its fair share of British tax, Alphabet Inc.s Google unit is trying to show its a good corporate citizen by offering five hours of free digital skills training to all U.K. residents. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., listens to a speaker during an event at Google's Kings Cross office in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. After being criticized for not paying its fair share of British tax, Alphabet Inc.s Google unit is trying to show its a good corporate citizen by offering five hours of free digital skills training to all U.K. residents. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Good questions to ask

Instead of obsessing over search results, committee members might do better to focus on content filtering as seen inYouTube’s recommendation engine — which seems to optimize keeping people’s attention over the quality of what it puts in front of people’s eyeballs. Google’s attempts to filter out the worst content or at least exclude it from advertising income, meanwhile, have sometimes trapped content as innocent asa clip of a giant American flag at a football game.

“We’ve over optimized a lot of these algorithms without thinking about all the factors,” said Heather West, senior policy manager atMozilla, the nonprofit behind the Firefox browser that competes with Google’s Chrome. “If you stick a really smart engineer on a problem — do this as well as possible — they’re going to do it.”

But, she added: “If they optimize for one thing, chances are they’re going to leave something out.”

Graves, however, worried that discussions over Google’s role in curbing extremist content would lead to more attacks on Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. That’s helped social media flourish by protecting sites from liability for most things their users post, but it’s also been a target for companies and organizations upset at social networks’ responses to such issues as copyright infringement and sex trafficking.

Google has also earned Congressional scrutiny over its experimentation with building a censored version of its search engine for the Chinese market that it left in 2010—a project that former employees havedenounced as wrong and whichcurrent Googlers have begun protesting.

“The Chinese search engine is likely to come up,” said Mike Godwin, a fellow with theR Street Institute, a Washington think tank. He cited recent reports thatGoogle shut out some of its own privacy experts from this effort —“trying to sort of do an end run around their own internal culture” —as reason to ask what Google’s former “Don’t be evil” motto ever met.

The existence of this so-called Project Dragonfly censored search, Godwin added, also invites hostile questions about how Google’s news search runs: “Google in effect has demonstrated that it can skew results.”

Expect a continued failure to communicate

We should also hope that committee members take time to grill Google about its response to theGoogle+ data breach and the consequences it’s observed of complying with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.

But this hearing will probably wind up demonstrating once again the gulf between a tech industry that prides itself on being data-driven and elected officials who have to respond to a fair amount of confusion and anxiety among citizens whom the tech industry prefers to call “users.”

Or as Godwin put it: “The fact is, members of Congress don’t like statistics. They like stories.”

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