Senate Republicans tore into Google, demanding accountability for its biased, election-skewing algorithms during a hearing, while Democrats ran interference, denying the company was censoring anyone – and suggesting it should.
“If Big Tech cannot provide us with evidence that it’s not playing Big Brother with its vast immense powers, there’s no reason Congress should give them a special subsidy with section 230,” Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution chair Ted Cruz (R-Texas) warned, opening Tuesday’s hearing on Google and Censorship through Search Engines. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gives internet platforms legal immunity for content they host, so long as they make no editorial judgments about that content. Google, Cruz and his colleagues declared, had long since overstepped that boundary.
Admitting “The Good Censor,” the infamous leaked document in which Google discusses how it “control[s] the majority of online conversations” having shifted the balance away from the “marketplace of ideas” model toward the “well-ordered spaces for safety and civility” model, was a real Google document, Google VP of government affairs and public policy Karan Bhatia dismissed it as marketing-speak. “The Good Censor” showed Google proudly assuming the mantle of “editor” and “publisher” – roles it is not permitted to perform while retaining section 230 protections. Bhatia was unable to explain away the document’s damning content, shrugging it away as “thinking that’s being done by a marketing team.”
Bhatia’s artful evasiveness lead Cruz to marvel at one point: “You’re managing to be less candid than Mark Zuckerberg.” His repeated appeals to Google’s large size – 100,000 people – and (he insisted) heterogenous nature failed to deflect the determined questioning of conservative senators eager to drag answers out of Google’s walled data fortress.
Cruz and Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) called for an independent third-party audit of Google’s content moderation algorithms, a prospect that clearly unsettled both Bhatia and his defenders on the Democratic side of the aisle. Citing the company’s cooperation with Chinese government demands for content censorship, Hawley asked, “Why would anyone believe you now when you say we don’t ever impose an ideological agenda?”
“Democracy as originally conceived cannot survive Big Tech as currently empowered,” researcher Robert Epstein warned the committee, describing how Google’s “autocomplete” search suggestions can turn an even 50-50 split among undecided voters into a 90-10 split. “Google has likely been determining the outcomes of upwards of 25 percent of the national elections worldwide since at least 2015,” he said, pointing out that the search engine’s algorithms must by necessity put “one widget ahead of another – and one candidate ahead of another.”
Bhatia flatly denied Google blacklists websites, even though Breitbart has published leaked emails admitting that both the search engine and YouTube have “tons of white- and blacklists that humans manually curate.” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) dismissed his denial that Google prioritized its own search results over competitors like Yelp (for business reviews) or Kayak (for travel). “People aren’t dumb,” she said.
Other senators thought Google didn’t go far enough with its censorship. Despairing that “Google will be accused of political motives for common sense actions that are totally within their rights,” Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) lamented that the company was not doing enough to censor the real problems – which, she claimed, included the spread of anti-vaccine misinformation, harassment, and YouTube radicalization. Hirono received $10,185 from Google during her 2018 Senate campaign, a fact which was not mentioned during the hearing.
“I feel like I’m in a Monty Python skit here,” PragerU founder Dennis Prager interjected at one point, exasperated by the Google rep’s non-answers. PragerU’s videos have been censored, Bhatia claimed, because they contain violent or hateful imagery – including a video on the 10 Commandments that was allegedly restricted for depicting Nazi symbols as an example of “murder.”
“Why have the number of views for harmful content dropped by only one half? Why hasn’t the amount of traffic that YouTube is driving dropped to zero? You can control that!” Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked Bhatia.
And Hirono inevitably brought up “Russian meddling” – though Epstein shot that line of questioning down by pointing out that the government had much bigger and more urgent problems facing them in the next election.
“In 2020, if all these companies are supporting the same candidate, there are 15 million votes on the line that can be shifted without people’s knowledge and without leaving a paper trail for the authorities to trace,” Epstein warned, pointing out that Google’s algorithm tweaks had handed Hillary Clinton a “bare minimum” of 2.6 million votes in 2016, and suggesting they were “too confident” to try harder to win. This time, he warned, whichever candidate Google wants, the US will get.