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|11 December, 2018

Google finds Congress still searching for a clue

A grilling of Google chief Sundar Pichai revealed that Congress is still searching for a clue

The Google name is displayed outside the company's office in London, Britain November 1, 2018.

The Google name is displayed outside the company's office in London, Britain November 1, 2018.

REUTERS/Toby Melville

WASHINGTON  - A grilling of Google chief Sundar Pichai revealed that Congress is still searching for a clue. The U.S. lawmakers he faced on Tuesday failed to land a blow, and seemed ill informed about what the search engine, owned by the $730 billion Alphabet, actually does. The knowledge gap is risky for tech firms because it increases the risk of regulation that misses the mark.

Pichai is the latest in a parade of tech executives who have faced the Washington treatment over the last year. Legislators are angry about the possible effect of social media on elections, data breaches, perceived partisan bias and other issues. Top lawyers for Facebook, Twitter and Google testified before Congress in October 2017. Mark Zuckerberg followed in April. His deputy Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey got their turn in September.

After all that face time, politicians should be up to speed. They’re not. Several lawmakers asked Pichai questions about the iPhone, made by Apple AAPL.O . Congressman Steve Cohen asked Pichai to set up an “online Google school” and a telephone help line in which users could talk to actual people. There were probing queries, but they were few. Representative Doug Collins ticked through a list of factors including GPS and Wi-Fi to ask Pichai if Google collects data.

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It’s worrying, because Congress faces the task of working out how to increase privacy standards and spur competition. Congressman Steve King, who criticized Google for a bias against conservatives and Republicans, said the company should release the names of the more than 1,000 employees on its search team so lawmakers can study their social media comments for any partisanship. If it declined, he suggested Google publicize its search algorithms.

Lawmakers are not expected to be tech experts and rely on their staff to brief them on issues. But it is their responsibility to be sufficiently informed that they can effectively question executives and hammer out useful legislation.

Besides, complex topics are nothing new. Most members of Congress were not familiar with over-the-counter derivatives until they put together the post-financial crisis Dodd-Frank legislation in 2010. Their plan requiring central clearing for swaps is praised even by the banking industry. If tech regulation is going to be effective without being excessively onerous – or focused on the wrong issues – lawmakers have some brushing up to do.

On Twitter https://twitter.com/GinaChon

CONTEXT NEWS

- Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Alphabet’s Google, told U.S. lawmakers on Dec. 11 that the company works hard to ensure the integrity of its products.

- He testified in the U.S. House of Representatives, whose members accused Google of being biased against conservatives, criticized its Chinese search engine project and asked about security vulnerabilities in its Google+ social network.

- Google said on Dec. 10 that it would shut down Google+ in April, ahead of schedule, after discovering a software flaw that allowed partner apps to access private user data. It affected 52.5 million Google+ accounts.

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

- For previous columns by the author, Reuters customers can click on CHON/

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(Editing by John Foley and Amanda Gomez) ((gina.chon@thomsonreuters.com; Reuters Messaging: gina.chon.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

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