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Sundar skates through Congress

December 11 · Issue #263 · View online
The Interface
From time to time the entire technology press corps gets together on Twitter, spends several hours live-tweeting the same event, and then writes a series of blog posts about how nothing important happened. This event is known as a Congressional hearing, and today we witnessed our final one of the year.
After months of polite deferrals, Sundar Pichai finally went before Congress on Tuesday, and over the course of three and a half hours, said as little as possible. The hearing before the House Judiciary Committee was defined, as had been the Facebook hearings before it, by the widespread befuddlement of our lawmakers.
There was, for example, the question from Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) about why a picture of Donald Trump comes up when you Google the word “idiot.” Adi Robertson has the correct answer, for the record:
News outlets reported on the Trump “idiot” results earlier this year. If you search the term now, in fact, you’ll mostly get pictures from stories explaining why it happened. It appeared to be the result of outside parties gaming Google’s search results, a well-known tactic known as “Google bombing.”
Trump isn’t the first president to get Google-bombed: in the mid-2000s, searches for “miserable failure” famously returned results about President George W. Bush. It can be a politicized (or just funny) extension of normal search engine optimization tactics. In this case, it’s convincing Google that a Trump picture is what most people want when they search for “idiot,” by upvoting or linking to posts with that combination of words and images.
Then there was the moment that Rep. Steve King (R-IA) asked Pichai — the CEO, we repeat, of Google — to explain why his daughter’s iPhone was behaving strangely:
“I have a seven-year-old granddaughter who picked up her phone during the election, and she’s playing a little game, the kind of game a kid would play,” King told Pichai. “And up on there pops a picture of her grandfather. And I’m not going to say into the record what kind of language was used around that picture of her grandfather, but I’d ask you: how does that show up on a seven-year-old’s iPhone, who’s playing a kid’s game?”
It’s not clear what King was referring to, but it’s possible his granddaughter’s iPhone (or possibly Android phone) was displaying a notification card about a news story. The language around his photo may forever remain a mystery, but during campaign season, there was no shortage of writers with strong feelings about King’s numerous racist and anti-immigrant statements, or his endorsement of a Canadian white nationalist mayoral candidate. In any case, during the hearing, King also suggested that Congress should check Google employees’ social media profiles to monitor their political leanings — so some confusing troubleshooting requests were probably the least of Pichai’s worries.
But before we write off Congress entirely, it’s worth noting that they did attempt to get to the bottom of the Project Dragonfly situation. Is Google building a censored search engine for China — the subject of much internal dissent — or is it not? Here’s Ryan Gallagher in The Intercept.
Pichai repeatedly insisted that Dragonfly was an “internal effort” and the Google currently had “no plans to launch a search service in China.” Asked to confirm that the company would not launch “a tool for surveillance and censorship in China,” Pichai declined to answer, instead saying that he was committed to “providing users with information, and so we always — we think it’s ideal to explore possibilities. … We’ll be very thoughtful, and we will engage widely as we make progress.”
Pichai’s claim that the company does not have a plan to launch the search engine in China contradicted a leaked transcript from a private meeting inside the company. In the transcript, the company’s search chief Ben Gomes discussed an aim to roll out the service between January and April 2019. For Pichai’s statement to Congress to be truthful, there is only one possibility: that the company has put the brakes on Dragonfly since The Intercept first exposed the project in August.
Despite lawmakers’ efforts to follow up, they didn’t break much new ground. (Though in a follow-up interview with the Washington Post, Pichai seemed to suggest Project Dragonfly might wind up being something other than search: “Can we explore and serve users in China, in areas like education and healthcare?” he said. “We may not end up doing search. We’re trying to understand a market.”)
Why did reporters have better luck with Pichai today than Congress did? Shira Ovide, reading my mind, lays the blame with the bizarre structure of these hearings, which gives maximum opportunity for witnesses to wriggle out of questioning:
Pichai repeatedly fell back to saying that this China project is “exploratory” and that Google will be transparent if it moves ahead. That’s not a good enough answer. He needs to say how many employees are working on this project, what Google’s criteria are for returning web search to China and whether Google will build tools that will enable the Chinese government to surveil its own citizens without their knowledge. 
To be clear, I don’t want to repeat the false idea that members of Congress are old luddites who aren’t able or willing to understand how tech companies work. Some members of Congress asked great questions on Tuesday. Some of them did not. This format, however, does not feel like a good way to decide public policy. 1 The thorny topic of the power of big technology companies deserves much better than this from all sides. 
What would help? Lawmakers demonstrating basic platform literacy; anticipating the non-answers that tech CEOs have prepared for them; scripting more penetrating follow-up questions; coordinating avenues of attack with their fellow representatives. Lawmakers might also try to debate their proposed solutions with CEO — bringing real policy questions to the table, instead of simple gotcha-oriented soundbites.
For their part, tech CEOs could do better answering the spirit of lawmakers’ questions, even when those lawmakers get the details wrong. It’s usually apparent what a lawmaker is concerned about, even if it’s not entirely clear how they have been led to their often bizarre and conspiratorial conclusions. Pichai, for example, could have spent more time talking about why Google has a strong financial incentive to keep search results free of political bias, rather than simply asserting, over and over again, that it does so.
Maybe next year.

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Delete All Your Apps
Facebook Has Better Uses for Its Cash Than Stock Buybacks
And finally ...
Twitter is often the story of a company that can’t stop hitting itself, and in the wake of Jack Dorsey’s recent public lashing over his Burmese meditation retreat, the CEO has decided to land a few more self-inflicted blows.
* more color on this given the resulting conversation.

I’ve been meditating for 20 years, with the last 2 years focused on vipassana. After experiencing it in Texas last year, I wanted to go to the region that maintained the practice in its original form. That led me to Myanmar.
I predict that, had he run any of his planned tweets by his quite capable PR staff, Dorsey could have avoided Burma-gate altogether. Instead, he is left to explain Twitter’s views on promoting free expression in the context of … his meditation hobby? I said it yesterday and I’ll say it again: the best way to discuss your silent meditation retreat is as silently as possible.
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