House Members Grill Google CEO Amid Bipartisan Privacy Concerns

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Google CEO Sundar Pichai took his turn in the Congressional hotseat on Tuesday, following similar appearances by the chief executives of Facebook and Twitter earlier this year before lawmakers who are increasingly alert to the vast societal impact of Silicon Valley tech giants.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy opened a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee by saying that Pichai’s testimony was needed “because of the widening gap of distrust between technology companies and the American people,” according to a partial transcript by Recode.

That distrust seemed to be shared on both sides of aisle, but Republicans and Democrats didn’t miss a chance to quibble over the different reasons for their wariness. As anticipated, Republicans accused Google of discriminating against content reflecting conservative views, while Democrats challenged Pichai to do more to eliminate online hate speech, the New York Times reported.

But committee members did express a common concern about data privacy, due to the widespread collection and use of personal data by technology companies to make money through targeted advertising and by other means.

“Google is able to collect an amount of information about its users that would even make the NSA (National Security Agency) blush,” said Robert Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, according to Recode. “Americans have no idea the sheer volume of information that is collected.”

U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, waved his iPhone in the air and repeatedly asked Pichai whether Google could track him across the hearing room. Poe balked when the Google CEO responded by mildly inquiring about the settings on Poe’s iPhone mobile apps, according to the New York Times. Committee Republicans, however, stopped short of proposing new federal privacy regulations.

On the other hand, New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler drilled down on the details of a series of recently revealed security bugs affecting Google’s social media feature, Google Plus. The security gaps could have made the private data of 52 million users vulnerable to capture by third-party developers, notwithstanding the privacy settings of the users. Although Google has said it found no signs that the security failures had been exploited by outsiders, the company has accelerated its plans to shut down the version of Google Plus designed for consumers.

The concerns of Democrats will move to the forefront in January, when the new Congress is seated, because successful candidates in the mid-term elections in November helped the party capture a House Democratic majority. Democrats will control committee agendas, and Nadler is expected to become chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

Google says it’s open to privacy regulation

Pichai, in written testimony submitted to the committee on Tuesday, said, “Protecting the privacy and security of our users has long been an essential part of our mission. We have invested an enormous amount of work over the years to bring choice, transparency, and control to our users. These values are built into every product we make.”

The Google CEO said he recognized the important role of government in regulating the uses of technology. “To that end, we support federal privacy legislation and proposed a legislative framework for privacy earlier this year,” he said.

Google and Facebook are members of a tech industry trade organization that proposed a regulatory scheme for data privacy in October. However, critics saw it as an attempt to head off more stringent federal laws that might be modeled after the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and a California privacy statute that has yet to take effect.

Calls for federal legislation to protect data privacy have been increasing. More than 200 companies across a variety of industries are advocating for nationwide consumer privacy laws based on a framework devised by the industry lobbying group Business Roundtable, the Washington Post reported on Dec. 6. The organization’s board of directors is made up of CEOs from many of the nation’s leading companies. Google, Facebook and Amazon and other major technology companies don’t belong to the group, however.

But two CEOs from other leading tech companies were ahead of the 200-company Business Roundtable coalition in calling for U.S. privacy legislation.

In May, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said the United States should follow the lead of the European Union and enact a national privacy law. Apple CEO Tim Cook followed suit in October.

Cook said companies should collect no more personal data than necessary; tell users what has been captured; and explain how it’s being used. Benioff said U.S. residents, like Europeans, should have a “right-to-be-forgotten.” The EU’s GDPR gives consumers the power to ask companies to erase their digital pasts.

“If you want to delete your information, you could hit that button and be sure your data is gone forever,” Benioff said.

Photo copyright: Andy Emel
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