Google at bay: CEO Sundar Pichai faces his US government accusers
Sundar Pichai, Google CEO

Google at bay: CEO Sundar Pichai faces his US government accusers

Updated 4 October

Internet of Business says

Google turned 20 this month, but its CEO was not celebrating on 28 September, as he found himself facing a barrage of questions from US politicians and administrators.

Sundar Pichai privately met Republican lawmakers to discuss a range of issues, including the company’s work with China, antitrust issues in Europe and elsewhere, and what the GOP regards as Google’s bias against conservative causes in search results.

After the meeting took place in Washington, it was announced that Pichai will testify before the US House Judiciary Committee on these issues in November, and will attend a separate meeting at the White House in the next few weeks.

On 4 October, the New York Post reported that the US Department of Justice is considering an antitrust investigation into Google’s use of its Android operating system.

So what was the context behind these moves and meetings, and Pichai’s forthcoming appearance before the House?

The Maven question

In the summer, an employee rebellion forced Google to pull out of the Pentagon’s Project Maven, when the contract comes up for renewal next year.

The US defence programme is developing AI to analyse drone footage for possible targets, which some see as weaponising the technology and beginning a march towards autonomous killing machines.

In the wake of the contract withdrawal, Google published a set of ethical principles for future AI development. The company said it will no longer allow its technologies to be used in weapons or in “other technologies whose principal purpose or implementation is to cause or directly facilitate injury to people”.

Also on the no-go list are systems that “gather or use information for surveillance, violating internationally accepted norms”, and those “whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights”.

SAP has also published a set of ethical guidelines.

However, Google has been criticised by Republicans for withdrawing from the Pentagon deal while collaborating with China on a censored version of its search engine.

Google’s work on that system, known as Dragonfly, has caused another employee rebellion at the company, but with little sign of the project being cancelled to date.

Former Google research scientist Jack Poulson went as far as writing to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation this week to say that the company’s work with China directly contradicts its own ethical statement.

The China syndrome

With a population of 1.4 billion people, a policy of huge national investment in technologies such as AI, robotics, autonomous vehicles, and 5G, and little in the way of data protection regulations, China holds out enormous potential for technology partnership – potential that US companies have long been exploiting.

After all, China and its allies manufacture goods for countless American enterprises, including much of the technology sector.

But it also presents an ethical minefield for Western CEOs, given its state internet censorship and, from 2020, a compulsory social ratings and citizen surveillance system, which – as a matter of stated policy – seeks to punish non-conformity.

As the trade war rages between the US and China, drawing in both countries’ allies, investigations of US companies’ affiliations with China have taken on an almost McCarthyite tone.

Political footballs

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the Spring, which – along with breaching Facebook data – exposed a complex campaign network funded by Republican backers, the technology sector has itself become a political minefield.

The complex forces at work in social media were laid bare on 28 September. Facebook suffered another large-scale data breach, affecting over 50 million accounts. The source of the breach remains unknown. Meanwhile, a US court attempt to force Facebook to wiretap Messenger calls failed, in what was seen as a test case for whether police surveillance powers could extend to internet-based communications.

Meanwhile, Republican politicians maintain that Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others, are effectively censoring conservative content in favour of a more socially liberal agenda.

Earlier this month, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg were among those finding their platforms examined in the glare of contemporary US politics. However, Google’s Pichai was criticised for not appearing before the Senate on the same day to answer questions about foreign interference in elections, along with other hearings on alleged bias and ‘fake news’.

Google has denied that any such bias exists and believes that the current administration is trying to force it to favour conservative causes, under threat of antitrust moves against the company – fears that appear increasingly well founded.

It released a statement earlier this month, saying, “Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology. Every year, we issue hundreds of improvements to our algorithms to ensure they surface high-quality content in response to users’ queries. We continually work to improve Google Search and we never rank search results to manipulate political sentiment.”

However, in a blog post this month, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai called for new laws requiring companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to disclose how they decide on bans and other policy decisions. Meanwhile, US attorney general Jeff Sessions is considering launching an investigation of social media companies.

Others agree

However, not all of the criticisms have come from Trump allies or appointees. “The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end,” said Democrat senator Mark Warner, vice-chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, adding, “Where we go from here now is an open question.”

Warner said that tech companies and social platforms are not doing enough to stop foreign influence in domestic matters – arguably overlooking the fact that Twitter, Facebook, and the rest, are global platforms, not US mouthpieces.

However, it is a matter of public record that fake accounts, troll farms, and Russian-backed social engineering programmes have been fanning the flames of any cause within the West that serves Russian interests – Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and others have admitted as such.

This week, US president Donald Trump accused China of interfering in the mid-term election campaigns, but supplied no hard evidence to back his claims.

Rock vs. hard place

These controversies leave companies such as Google between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they oppose tighter regulations of any kind, such as California’s new GDPR-like data privacy act (which comes into force in 2020). Google and others have been lobbying the government for a watered-down federal solution that better serves their commercial interests.

But on the other, seeing this administration as an ally – especially against their home state of California – is a high-stakes gamble, when the president regards them as biased against his own political beliefs.

There is certainly a global sense that these discussions, when set alongside the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, represent a watershed moment for the industry – one way or another.

The idea that some companies, such as Google and Facebook, are now too big, too complex, and too powerful for their own or others’ good is widely shared in Europe. Indeed, it was one of the spurs for the introduction of GDPR.

So for the US to round on Google now for antitrust moves is ironic, as the US has turned a blind eye to these for years, as long as they have furthered US interests overseas.

German watchdogs

Germany is among those threatening to rein in the internet giants, by bolstering the powers of its competition watchdog.

The idea is to prevent future platforms from becoming monopolies, and to stop companies like Google from simply buying up reams of smaller players – a policy that will rattle any startups whose goal is being acquired.

Earlier this month, German economy minister Peter Altmaier said it was essential to strike the right balance “between the growth chances of German and European platforms and preventing the abuse of market power”.

He published a 173-page report on proposals to give Germany’s antitrust regulator powers to act before any company reaches a tipping point in market influence – a process that can happen at high speed due to the network effect. The rapid rise of Facebook, Twitter, and others, demonstrates this.

It also recommends giving regulators the power to prevent a merger or acquisition, even if the deal does not create a monopoly but is merely “an expression of an overall strategy” to buy up early-stage companies.

Were such a law to be adopted in Germany – and in Europe as a whole – it would challenge the core business model of large sections of the US technology industry, and any other company that has grown by aggressive acquisition.

The report also proposes a new ‘data for all’ law that would require dominant platforms, such as Google, to share the data that feeds them, allowing smaller competitors to train their own algorithms to a similar standard.

‘Link taxes’ and privacy laws

And there are yet more problems for Google and other cloud platforms in Europe.

France’s data regulator, the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés, is seeking to extend the so-called Right to be Forgotten globally, arguing that any Europe-only removal of data is meaningless on a global platform in an age of IP cloaking.

Google and others oppose the plan – just as they oppose all GDPR-style rules than threaten their advertising-based businesses, such as California’s incoming privacy regulations.

And on 12 September, the European Parliament voted to amend two articles in the EU copyright directive.

The amended Article 11 would force news aggregation and search sites, such as Google, to pay publishers for showing news snippets and links.

The move is supported by many content owners, who believe that Google is syphoning off their revenues, but opposed by tech luminaries, such as Sir Tim Berners Lee, as a ‘link tax’ that threatens the very concept of hypertext and the World Wide Web.

Meanwhile, Article 13 would force platforms such as YouTube to seek licences for content from copyright owners – a move supported by many musicians, who believe that, while Google gives them a global profile, it denies them commensurate revenue streams for their work.

Happy birthday, Google.