Google CEO Faces First Congressional Hearing: What to Watch

(Bloomberg) -- Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai will have to defend the internet giant against a barrage of assertions and allegations during his first congressional hearing on Tuesday.

The House Judiciary Committee hearing, starting at 10 a.m. in Washington, officially focuses on "Google and its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices." But the event will likely cover a long list of complaints against the company, including accusations of political bias, a controversial plan to return to China, and whether it violates antitrust laws.

Google CEO Faces First Congressional Hearing: What to Watch

This caps a difficult year for Google and other internet companies such as Facebook Inc. The industry has been criticized for spreading misinformation and extreme content online, while privacy breaches and other mishaps have shaken the public’s faith in its ability to keep customer data safe and use it wisely.

“We’re long past that high water mark of Silicon Valley’s belief that they can solve these problems on their own or ignore the public pressure,’’ said Danny O’Brien, international director with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group.

In prepared testimony released before the hearing, Pichai backed calls for federal privacy legislation, denied the company is politically biased and stressed Google’s U.S. roots.

Here’s a look at the top issues he will have to address on Tuesday:

China and the Pentagon

This may be the thorniest line of questioning for Pichai. A project, code named "Dragonfly," to re-enter China after a long absence has roiled the company. The CEO has characterized the project as an experiment, while former employees have said it was more advanced.

Details of Dragonfly’s progress -- or lack thereof -- may emerge as Pichai faces specific questions from lawmakers who have had a lot of practice quizzing tech executives this year.

Politicians have already asked why Google is apparently willing to work with the Chinese Communist Party to censor search results when it has pulled back from two contracts with the U.S. military. Google is letting an artificial intelligence contract with the Pentagon lapse after protests from its own employees, and it decided not to bid on a huge U.S. government cloud-computing contract.

“While we regret that Google did not want to continue a long and fruitful tradition of collaboration between the military and technology companies, we are even more disappointed that Google apparently is more willing to support the Chinese Communist Party than the U.S. military,” a group of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers wrote in a recent letter to Google.

Google stopped providing its search engine in China in 2008 after the government demanded results be censored. But the world’s largest internet market is attractive to any global company, and a return could signal Google is prioritizing its business over human rights.

“What has changed?’’ said Cynthia Wong, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Between now and then, the human rights situation in China has only gotten worse.’’

Late on Monday, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden joined groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to demand that Google promise not to create a search engine for China that contributes to censorship and political repression.

Antitrust and Data Privacy

Pichai is likely to face several questions about Google’s dominance of the online search market, and its control of data powering many digital ads. The European Union has hit the company with massive fines and new laws to try and curb its power over the web, and several U.S. lawmakers have called for regulators to take a fresh look at the Google’s sprawling businesses.

"The committee has gotten really savvy over the last year,” said Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a trade group representing digital media organizations including Bloomberg News. Just “because Google’s services are free doesn’t mean they should be protected from an antitrust discussion.”

Google, Facebook and other tech companies want a national bill that will preempt a strict data-privacy law in California that’s due to take effect in 2020.

“The passage of the California privacy law has prompted a sense of urgency," said Berin Szóka, president of policy group TechFreedom. "The stakes are a little higher. Congress has to be thinking about regulation. And the hearing should be an opportunity for them to think this through.’’

Pichai will be eager to appear transparent and cooperative, especially after skipping a Senate hearing earlier this year, said Allie Bohm, policy counsel for public policy group Public Knowledge.

"Tech companies both see the writing on the wall and very much want comprehensive privacy legislation," Bohm said. "I don’t think Google wants another empty chair story. They don’t want to look like they are dodging accountability or unwilling to talk about their practices."

Bias allegations

Another goal for Pichai will be to neutralize accusations of anti-conservative bias. U.S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter earlier this year to accuse Google of filtering out positive stories about him in its search results. There was no proof, but the comments found support among conservatives.

Google has denied politics influence how its search and news algorithms work. But some politicians have used the claims to fire up right-wing voters.

Whatever happens, it won’t be the end of Google and Pichai’s trials.

"This will impact the industry for a long time, so the leaders need to put their best foot forward," said Sameet Sinha, an analyst at B Riley FBR Inc. "He can build good products and maintain Google’s good work culture, but regulators can make life tough for you."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.