GOOGLE GRILLED IN CONGRESS: WHAT’S AHEAD FOR TECH COM­PA­NIES

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U.S. law­mak­ers’ grilling of Google CEO Sun­dar Pichai may have sounded like a bro­ken record, but it am­pli­fied the prickly is­sues fac­ing tech com­pa­nies as Democrats pre­pare to take con­trol of the House next month.

The 3 1/2-hour hear­ing Tues­day hit upon fa­mil­iar themes — on­line pri­vacy, data pro­tec­tion and the dan­ger of dig­i­tal monopolies — that are poised to come into even sharper fo­cus next year.

Here are some of the hur­dles that Google par­ent Al­pha­bet Inc., Face­book, Ama­zon and other tech com­pa­nies are likely to face when the 116th Congress con­venes.

USER PRI­VACY

Loom­ing over the tech in­dus­try is the pos­si­bil­ity of gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion in­tended to pro­tect peo­ple’s data. One model for law­mak­ers may be Europe, where new rules gov­ern­ing data and pri­vacy went into ef­fect this year.

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, tried to pin down Pichai on pri­vacy dur­ing Tues­day’s hear­ing. “I’ve got an iPhone,” Poe said, wav­ing his de­vice. “Can Google track me when I move?” If he moved to the left to­ward his Demo­cratic col­leagues on the panel, would Google know?

“Not by de­fault,” Pichai an­swered. Poe de­manded a yes or no an­swer, but Pichai in­di­cated it was com­pli­cated.

Other law­mak­ers ques­tioned whether reg­u­lar peo­ple know how much data Google can col­lect about them and how to stop be­ing tracked. Pri­vacy, of course, is also a huge is­sue for Face­book, which has spent nearly a year try­ing to re­cover from the Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica data min­ing scan­dal.

SEARCH­ING FOR BIAS

Law­mak­ers from both par­ties seem de­ter­mined to re-ex­am­ine whether Google rigs its search re­sults to pro­mote its own ser­vices and its own po­lit­i­cal agenda, too. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump also has com­plained about the is­sue (with­out ev­i­dence).

Euro­pean reg­u­la­tors al­ready have con­cluded Google ma­nip­u­lated its search en­gine to gain an un­fair ad­van­tage over other on­line shop­ping sites in the lu­cra­tive e-com­merce mar­ket, and fined the com­pany $2.8 bil­lion. Google dis­putes those find­ings and is still ap­peal­ing the de­ci­sion reached in 2017.

The U.S. Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion opened a sim­i­lar in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Google’s busi­ness prac­tices in 2011. That probe con­cluded 19 months later with­out find­ing any se­ri­ous mis­con­duct and didn’t re­quire any mean­ing­ful changes to how the com­pany op­er­ates.

But in­ter­nal doc­u­ments later sur­faced that in­di­cated the FTC’s board had brushed off some rec­om­men­da­tions of staff lawyers who be­lieved Google was tin­ker­ing with its search re­sults in way that sti­fled com­pe­ti­tion.

U.S. Rep. David Ci­cilline, a Demo­crat from Rhode Is­land, told Pichai he in­tended to work with the FTC to draw up a reg­u­la­tory frame­work to pre­vent Google from throt­tling its ri­vals through its search en­gine, which han­dles two out of ev­ery three queries in the U.S.

Nu­mer­ous law­mak­ers also as­serted that Google uses its search en­gine as a pro­pa­ganda ma­chine that high­lights news and opin­ions sup­port­ing its own view of how the world should be. The pre­vail­ing con­sen­sus so far is that the al­leged bias most fre­quently falls on the left-lean­ing side of most de­bates, al­though that pen­du­lum could swing now that Democrats will be the ma­jor­ity party in the House.

But draw­ing up reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing that area of search re­sults would be more likely to raise First Amend­ment is­sues, mak­ing them even more dif­fi­cult to im­pose.

CHINA

Law­mak­ers on both sides pep­pered Pichai with ques­tions about the pos­si­bil­ity that Google is con­sid­er­ing of­fer­ing a cen­sored search en­gine in China af­ter pulling out of that coun­try in 2010 in a high-pro­file dis­pute with its com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment’s poli­cies.

It’s not clear what Congress might be able to do to pre­vent Google from re­turn­ing to China, but it would cer­tainly trig­ger more po­lit­i­cal fire­works.

Pichai ac­knowl­edged Google has been ex­plor­ing a pos­si­ble search en­gine in China with a team of en­gi­neers that at times has ex­ceeded 100 peo­ple, but re­peat­edly em­pha­sized the com­pany has no plans to re­lease it “right now.” If that changes, Pichai promised let law­mak­ers know about it.

ELEC­TION IN­TER­FER­ENCE

While Repub­li­cans on the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee grilled Pichai on what they per­ceive as bias against con­ser­va­tives, top com­mit­tee Demo­crat Jer­rold Nadler said law­mak­ers should in­stead ex­am­ine is­sues such as the spread of mis­in­for­ma­tion on­line and Rus­sian ef­forts to in­flu­ence U.S. elec­tions on­line.

Given Democrats are poised to take over the House, the use of fake news and mis­in­for­ma­tion by for­eign ac­tors — es­pe­cially Rus­sia — will likely to con­tinue to be front and cen­ter in the com­ing months, if not years.

BREAK­ING UP IS HARD TO DO

Gov­ern­ments around the world are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly un­nerved by the power be­ing amassed by ma­jor tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies — with the dom­i­nance of Face­book in so­cial net­work­ing, Google in search and Ama­zon in e-com­merce rais­ing the most con­cerns.

That has raised the specter that Trump and Congress might turn up the heat on an­titrust reg­u­la­tors to get them to in­ves­ti­gate whether con­sumers and the econ­omy as a whole need to be pro­tected from those com­pa­nies.

In the most dra­matic sce­nario, a case might be made for break­ing the com­pa­nies into smaller pieces. The premise would be that they have be­come modern-day trusts sim­i­lar to what John Rock­e­feller built through Stan­dard Oil, be­fore the U.S. Supreme Court re­quired it to be dis­man­tled in a 1911 de­ci­sion that re­shaped the busi­ness land­scape.

Im­age: An­drew Harnik

Im­age: Alex Bran­don

Im­age: Alex Wong

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