Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Google and Congress Botch an Opportunity

Casey Newton:

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.

Shira Ovide, Bloomberg:

It would be helpful to start from the premise that Google (and Facebook) siphon more than enough information on people’s online actions and habits in the real world. Ask Google to commit to collecting data only if people explicitly agree. (The default is often the opposite; user information like people’s searches, their physical location over time and websites they visit are collected by Google unless people explicitly tell Google to stop.) Ask Google (and Apple) to commit to auditing the data collection of all the apps people download on Android phones and iPhones and demand to know whether they sell location information. Let’s change the conversation from what tech companies do to what they need to stop or start doing about personal information.

[…]

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. The thorny topic of the power of big technology companies deserves much better than this from all sides.

Charlie Warzel, Buzzfeed:

Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s three and a half hour testimony before the House Judiciary Committee today — and the problem with congressional tech executive hearings — is perhaps best encapsulated by his brief exchange with Texas Rep. Ted Poe.

“I have an iPhone,” Poe said, brandishing the device for all to see. “If I go and sit with my Democratic friends over there, does Google track my movement?”

Pichai began to reply, explaining that the answer to Poe’s question really depends on a bunch of smartphone minutiae — location services, app settings, privacy configurations, etc. But before he could finish, Poe cut him off. “It’s a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question,” he bellowed. (It wasn’t.)

The exchange is an exemplar of the disconnect, the frustrations, and the pointlessness of the past year’s parade of tech executive hearings. Congress calls for Silicon Valley to have its day in the DC hot seat; then the day comes, and instead we find it’s a booster seat. Or an opportunity for congressional yelling. Or executive evasiveness. And in any case, nothing much is accomplished.

Take Poe’s question. Its topic — data privacy and location tracking — is important, but the wording was unartful, and it revealed, immediately, a poor understanding of the workings of the technology to which it referred. Conversely, Pichai’s answer seemed to purposefully ignore the spirit of the question, focusing on semantics instead of a reasonable answer. (For example: “While I don’t know the particulars of your device, yes, many Google apps track granular location information.”) The end result? Nothing worthwhile.

As usual for public performances like these, the most telling moments of Pichai’s testimony came in the form of what he did not say. For example, he didn’t give an explicit indicator of the status of the company’s work on a search engine specifically for users in China, only stating that it was “exploratory”. Virtually the entire running time of the hearing was characterized by members of Congress grandstanding on their issues of choice, rather than using their time to ask thoughtful questions.