Google CEO Sundar Pichai denied before a congressional panel Tuesday that the search giant is working on a search engine for China. "Right now we have no plans to launch search in China," he told the House Judiciary Committee. In August, the Intercept reported that Google had been working secretly on a search engine that would not include human rights, democracy, religion or protest websites. In 2010, Google withdrew its censored search service out of China in response to the Chinese government's free speech limits.
However, Pichai, when questioned by Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., did characterize work on a Chinese search product as a "limited internal effort," and he said he'd be happy to "consult, be transparent as we take steps toward launching a product in China." And he didn't rule out launching a censored search product in China in the future. "We have a stated mission of providing users with information," he said, "and so we always think it's in our duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information."
During the hearing, Pichai also defended Google against charges of political bias and answered questions about privacy. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Pichai that there is a "widening gap of distrust" between tech companies and the American people. McCarthy also said he is concerned Google's business practices may have been influenced by employees' political bias against conservatives.
Privacy and tracking were issues of interest to the panel, too. The chairman of the committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, told Pichai, "I think it is fair to say that most Americans have no idea the sheer volume of information that is collected," and he said he was hoping "to get answers on the extent of data collection and use by Google."
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, tried to pin down Pichai concretely on privacy. "I've got an iPhone," Poe said, waving his device. "Can Google track me when I move?"
"Not by default," Pichai answered. Poe demanded a yes or no answer, but Pichai indicated it was complicated.
The committee's top Democrat, New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler called the notion of bias a "delusion" and "right-wing conspiracy theory." Nadler says Tuesday's hearing is the House Judiciary Committee's fourth one to address political bias. He says lawmakers should instead examine issues such as the spread of misinformation and Russia's efforts to influence U.S. elections online.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California at one point early in the hearing asked Pichai to explain why it is that when users search for "idiot" online, photos of Donald Trump appear. How does that happen, she wondered?
Any time you type in a keyword, Google has stored billions of web pages in its index, he told her, and Google takes the key word and matches it against the web pages and ranks them, based on 200 signals -- "things like relevance, freshness, popularity, how other people are using it," he explained, and based on that, "we try and find the best results of any query."
"So it's not some little man sitting behind the curtain figuring out what [Google is] going to show the user...?"
"We don't manually intervene on any search," Pichai told Lofgren.
Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and Trump adviser Roger Stone showed up for the hearing, standing in line with the public for seats in the room. As Pichai entered the hearing room, Jones yelled that Apple and Google were working with China to censor people. He also chanted, "Google is evil."
Pichai's appearance came more than three months after he turned down an invitation to testify in August, to the consternation of some lawmakers. Some members of Congress are now mulling whether tougher regulations to curb the power of Google, Facebook and other technology companies are needed in addition to demanding tighter controls over digital privacy.
Sarah Horbacewicz contributed to this report.