Published 2:51 PM EDT Sep 28, 2018
SAN FRANCISCO -- Google CEO Sundar Pichai has agreed to testify before the House Judiciary Committee in November to address concerns over the Internet giant's business practices.
The agreement was reached during a private audience with a dozen GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill Friday, where Pichai faced a barrage of questions including on whether Google is biased against conservatives. Google has repeatedly denied any political bias in Internet search results.
"I know many of us have been out to Silicon Valley and spent time with the technology companies that are changing our world. And to date -- I think a lot of that progress has been for the better," House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said. “But as big tech’s business grows, we have not had enough transparency and that has led to an erosion of trust and perhaps worse -- harm to consumers."
In a statement, Pichai said he met with Republicans and Democrats over two days in discussions he characterized as "constructive and informative."
"We remain committed to continuing an active dialogue with members from both sides of the aisle, working proactively with Congress on a variety of issues, explaining how our products help millions of American consumers and businesses, and answering questions as they arise," Pichai said.
It was a sharp shift in tone for Google and lawmakers. Earlier this month, Google refused to send Pichai or Larry Page, CEO of Google parent-company Alphabet, to testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing alongside top executives from Facebook and Twitter on state-sponsored election interference, enraging lawmakers.
"I want to thank Sundar for taking time out of his schedule to be with us. I should note that Sundar was scheduled to be in Asia this week but he canceled that trip to be here today," McCarthy said. “This is the start of a conversation that I believe is long overdue -- and that responsibility falls on both sides."
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The private meeting in McCarthy's office comes the same week that Google's chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, was grilled by lawmakers at a Senate online privacy hearing on the company exploring a new search product for China, which it hasn't launched.
Censorship charges against left-leaning Silicon Valley have been raised in multiple hearings on Capitol Hill and have become come a conservative rallying cry ahead of the midterm elections. They are also the subject of a new documentary, "The Creepy Line," by conservative author Peter Schweizer. A recent poll from the Media Research Center conducted by McLaughlin & Associates found that 65 percent of self-described conservatives believe that social media companies intentionally censor the political right.
Until recently lawmakers had focused their criticism on another tech giant, Facebook, after a series of privacy blunders and the unchecked spread of online propaganda by Russia agents during and after the 2016 presidential election.
Now Google, which dominates the search business around the world and whose YouTube video service has come under fire for spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories, faces tougher scrutiny of its business practices and new threats of regulation.
Google was frequently mentioned during a meeting Tuesday with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and state law enforcement officials exploring potential antitrust and data privacy investigations.
Attacks on Google have escalated in recent weeks. Trump and other prominent Republicans have accused Google and other tech companies of suppressing and censoring conservative voices and viewpoints. Last month, Trump claimed search results for "Trump News" were "RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD."
McCarthy had also chastised Google for search results, tweeting that results that incorrectly said the ideology of the California Republican Party included "Nazism" were a "disgrace." Google blamed "vandalism" at Wikipedia.
Google says it does not rank search results to manipulate political sentiment. But last week the "Wall Street Journal" reported that Google employees debated ways to alter search results to direct users to pro-immigration organizations and to contact lawmakers and government agencies after Trump's immigration travel ban against predominantly Muslim countries. And right-wing news site Breitbart obtained an internal video following Trump's election in 2016 in which executives of Google parent Alphabet expressed dismay at the outcome, adding new fuel to charges by the political right that Google is biased against conservatives.
McCarthy, who has increased his criticism of Google in recent weeks, took aim at Google again when it failed to send Alphabet CEO Larry Page or Pichai to testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on state-sponsored election interference. Google had offered to send Kent Walker, its senior vice president for global affairs and a point person on election interference, but the offer was rejected by the committee. Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took questions from senators at the hearing next to an empty chair marked "Google."
Dan Schnur, professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications, says Google blundered by not showing up for the Senate hearing but says the company realized that "at some point they were going to have to kiss the ring."
"In Washington you do get a second chance to make a first impression," Schnur said. "Even if there are some hard feelings, if they present themselves in a cooperative manner going forward, they should be just fine."