Google chief prepares to testify before Congress

Google is preparing for one of its toughest weeks in recent years, as its chief executive testifies before the US Congress for the first time, a day before he is due to take part in a meeting with other technology bosses at the White House.

Sundar Pichai will on Wednesday be questioned by members of the House judiciary committee in a hearing that officials say is likely to be wide-ranging and potentially tempestuous.

With the company facing criticism for working on a censored search engine for China and facing allegations that it suppresses certain results for political reasons, officials said they expected the questioning to be tough.

One aide to a senior member of the committee said: “This is going to be a free for all, where members will get a chance to ask him about anything they are angry about. I expect a really, really wide array of questions — from privacy to political bias and everything in between.

“This will be something similar to the Facebook hearings,” the person said, referring to the two Congressional appearances by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, after the revelations surrounding Cambridge Analytica.

This is the first time Mr Pichai has been subject to the same kind of hostile political scrutiny that many of his fellow technology bosses have faced in the past year, and comes as politicians weigh up enacting America’s first national data privacy law.

In September, the Google boss was represented by an empty chair after he refused to testify alongside Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in front of the Senate intelligence committee. Google has been working hard this year to distance itself from the scandals surrounding Facebook, and opted to draw the anger of Congress rather than risk being seen in the same light as the embattled social network.

Following that hearing, Mr Pichai met Republican leaders to discuss their concerns at which it was reported he agreed in principle to Wednesday’s hearing.

In a statement issued ahead of the session, Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, said: “Recent reports suggest Google might not be wielding its vast power impartially. 

“Its business practices may have been affected by political bias. Additionally, reports claim the company is compromising its core principles by complying with repressive censorship mandates from China.”

The perceived leftwing bias of the big tech platforms — and Silicon Valley in general — has aroused considerable anger on the right, putting the issue at the top of the Republican-led committee’s agenda for the hearing. At the end of last week the Daily Caller, a rightwing news site, published an internal email from a Google engineer that it said showed the company was deliberately suppressing rightwing new sources in its search results, providing extra ammunition.

Thursday’s White House meeting is being billed as likely to be less confrontational, with topics reportedly due to include artificial intelligence, 5G wireless networks and quantum computing.

But Google executives are aware that they face increasing pressure from President Donald Trump, who has accused the company of returning biased search results.

Mr Trump tweeted in August: “Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake News Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD.”

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