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Big Tech’s Reckoning May Be Imminent After All

Tuesday's Google hearing suggested there's growing support for European-style regulation of Silicon Valley's monopolies.

Alex Wong/Getty

Sundar Pichai and House Republicans probably went to bed on Tuesday feeling satisfied with the result of the Google CEO’s testimony before the Judiciary Committee. House Republicans got to spend several hours bloviating about bogus claims that the large tech companies deliberately suppress conservative viewpoints, while Pichai got to spend several hours listening to House Republicans bloviate—which meant he didn’t have to spend much time talking about even more uncomfortable subjects, like his company’s aggressive data collection and user tracking. But there were moments during the hearing that should have kept Pichai up at night.

Much of the media coverage, like the hearing itself, revolved around the censorship question—specifically Republicans’ attempts to get Pichai to admit that his company is biased against conservatives. Ohio Republican Steve Chabot, for instance, complained that Google search results about the House GOP’s attempt to repeal Obamacare largely directed users to articles about how people would lose insurance, and that results about the Republican tax cut returned pieces about how it disproportionately helped the wealthy.

There’s no evidence that Google deliberately suppresses conservative viewpoints in its search algorithm. More broadly, in fact, Pichai and Google have both gone to great lengths to appease conservatives. Regardless, the censorship question—while undoubtedly a P.R. headache for Google—is not an existential threat. Government scrutiny is.

Not every Republican on the Judiciary Committee spent their entire time catering to Fox News and conservative talk radio. Several also asked pointed questions about the company’s data collection and privacy efforts, suggesting that there is finally bipartisan momentum for meaningful regulation of Google, Facebook, and Amazon. With Democrats poised to take charge of the Judiciary Committee, at which point the censorship allegations will fade from prominence in policy discussions, Big Tech’s long-predicted reckoning may well be near.

Pichai’s testimony began with two members of House GOP leadership making the case that Google had grown too powerful. “According to The Wall Street Journal, 90 percent of all searches go through Google,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said at the start of the hearing. “That is power. It comes with responsibility.” McCarthy appeared to be suggesting that Google’s dominance was bad in part because it was being used to suppress conservative voices. Still, committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte picked up the baton, saying “most Americans have no idea the sheer volume of detailed information” being swept up by the search engine’s data collection efforts, which “would make the NSA blush.”

This is a far cry from a simple charge of political bias. Goodlatte’s remarks suggest that he’s concerned about the company’s monopoly on search and near-monopoly on targeted advertising not because of some unfounded censorship allegation, but because of the sheer market power concentrated in one company. Other Republicans appeared similarly uncomfortable with this prospect.

In an inspired bit of political theater, Representative Ted Poe held up his smartphone and asked a frazzled Pichai if Google would know if he moved across the hearing room to speak with his Democratic colleagues. Pichai, using his engineering background as a shield, told Poe he couldn’t without knowing the particulars of the phone. It was an answer that didn’t satisfy Poe, or anyone. “I think the United States Congress needs to move in a direction to allow citizens to opt-in to the dissemination of their information rather than opt-out,” Poe said. “I think most Americans don’t know all the things this phone can do.” He concluded his testimony by advocating for the U.S. to adopt strict data protections like the ones implemented in the European Union earlier this year (the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR).

House Democrats were even more persistent in questioning Pichai about his company’s data collection and privacy policies—a sign of what’s to come from the Judiciary Committee under Democratic leadership. Representative Ted Deutch spent his five minutes grilling the CEO about what information Google was collecting from its users, and whether the company believes it should be held accountable for the fake news and hate speech that are disseminated on its platforms, like YouTube. Incoming committee chair Jerry Nadler, meanwhile, focused on election interference, telling Pichai in his opening statement, “We should examine what Google is doing to stop hostile foreign powers from using its platform to spread false information to harm our political discourse.”

These are the questions that the Judiciary Committee can be expected to pursue once the Democrats take charge in January: fake news, interference, and hate speech, but also privacy, data collection, and economic power. That’s quite a lot for a committee that will also be launching investigations into President Trump.

2018 was supposed to be the year of Big Tech’s reckoning. Instead, for much of the year, Capitol Hill has focused on Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. That may have impeded a broader, deeper inquiry into the practices of big tech companies. Now, Congress is doing its due diligence, and finding a common set of problems relating to data tracking and user privacy. For the first time, it seems that Republicans and Democrats may have enough common ground to enact legislation to address these concerns.

Pichai claims to welcome this scrutiny. “Tech has a lot of impact and a lot of consequences,” he told Axios after the hearing. “And so, I think it’s rightful to be more reflective of how technology is developed. And I think the stakes are higher, the technology is getting more powerful, with the technologies like AI coming up, too. So, I think it’s here to stay, and it’s a good thing, right? I think you want to be thoughtful about how you develop powerful technologies. And I think it’s important that more people than engineers are able to weigh in on these things.”

He may be an engineer, but Pichai knows how to speak like a director of communications; this is exactly what the leader of a tech monopoly should say. Google clearly has decided that it’s better to be actively involved in the discussions on Capitol Hill about regulating Big Tech, rather than fighting it at every step. But Google wouldn’t have settled on this strategy if it didn’t think regulations were inevitable. After Tuesday, the question is no longer whether Congress will enact regulation, but just how severe it will be.