At the censorship hearing led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on Tuesday, conservative senators like Cruz, Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) slammed Google for how it moderates content and prioritizes search results, accusing the tech giant of political bias toward conservatives.
“It seems that the problems around Big Tech, as they mature as an industry, are just mushrooming,” Blackburn said at the hearing. “And the biggest and the worst offenders, unfortunately for you all, people put Google at the top of the list.”
Blackburn, Cruz and Hawley are three of Big Tech’s biggest critics in the Senate, along with Democrat senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Last month, Hawley introduced a bill to the Senate that would force tech companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter to moderate content in a “politically neutral” way, or else lose their Section 230 protections.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields tech companies from legal liability if users post illegal or “lewd” content on their platforms. While tech companies are legally obligated to take down lewd and unlawful content, they cannot be held legally liable for the actions of their users under Section 230. Hawley has called this a “sweetheart deal” for Big Tech that allows them to profit off of questionable content and questionable business practices.
Many conservatives believe Big Tech targets them for censorship because leadership in the Big Tech companies tends to lean left. Some conservatives claim that they are more frequently banned or censored than their liberal counterparts, although not all conservatives agree that Big Tech is politically biased.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) pushed back on the idea that Google is biased against conservatives, pointing out that even though PragerU (a witness at the hearing) claims that YouTube unfairly restricts its videos for their conservative worldview, Google’s data shows that YouTube restricts a much higher percentage of videos from very liberal channels like The Young Turks, Democracy Now and Last Week Tonight.
Instead of focusing on conservative censorship claims, Hirono honed in on other perceived problems with Google’s user and content moderation policies. In particular, Hirono pressed Google on why YouTube hasn’t taken down a violent, graphic video of an active shooter.
“What possible explanation does Google have for why this video slipped through the cracks and remained on YouTube since August 2015?” she asked.
Google Vice President for Government Affairs and Public Policy Karan Bhatia replied that it depends on if the video is news coverage or not, but didn’t provide a concrete answer.
Hirono’s line of questioning fed into the overall narrative of the hearing that Google frequently makes errors, mistakes and questionable decisions — intentional or otherwise — when moderating content across its platforms.
Blackburn then pressed Google on how the company recommends videos and search results.
“On Monday you claimed in an op-ed that Google is not politically biased,” she said. “If you want us to believe that Google is an equal opportunity search engine and not an equal opportunity offender, let me clarify exactly what an equal playing field would look like for you all at Google: Google should equally promote video reporting in its search results whether the article is from CNN or Fox News. Shouldn’t Google equally promote news articles in its search results whether they’re from The Huffington Post or Breitbart?”
Bhatia didn’t answer directly, instead replying that “What gets surfaced is what’s most responsive. … We try to prioritize what’s most relevant and authoritative.”
Cruz and Hawley took these answers to mean that the decision-makers at Google must decide what’s most relevant or authoritative, and if Google is a more ideologically liberal company, then that means Google — at the very least — is implicitly biased against conservatives.
“Despite the fact that almost exclusively your executives donate to one political party —I think 1 percent went to Trump in 2016 — it is your testimony that you never use content moderation to advance an ideological agenda, is that correct?” Hawley asked.
“Yes, Senator,” Bhatia said. “It is contrary to our mission and contrary to our business interest. Which is why we’ve had third party studies demonstrate that we do not have political bias.”
“Except when you’re in China,” Hawley replied quickly. “You’re happy to censor in China and censor away any mention of Tiananmen Square, help them control the information flow, wouldn’t you call that censorship with an ideological agenda?”
Bhatia didn’t provide a direct answer, instead referring Hawley to the fact that Google exited the China market in 2010. He also reiterated that Project Dragonfly — the censored, Chinese-government-controlled version of a Google search engine that Google was working with China to launch — is definitely “terminated,” despite The Intercept’s report in March that the project is secretly ongoing.
The indirect answers didn’t satisfy Hawley, especially because Bhatia would not verbally commit to a third-party audit of Google’s content moderation practices and search result and video recommendation practices.
“You’ve been more than willing to engage in ideological censorship in the largest market in the world, you have been more than happy to partner with the most oppressive authoritarian regime on the planet, all for profits, whatever it is that’s good for Google, why would anyone believe you now when you won’t commit to a third-party audit, you won’t commit to me that you won’t engage in censorship when it suits your purposes, why would anyone believe you now when you say we don’t ever impose an ideological agenda, what assurances can you give us?” Hawley said.
Cruz then called for “real numbers and hard data” about Google’s algorithms and a “strong third party audit with no bias.” He also called for the average ad rate Google charged the Trump campaign versus the Clinton campaign in 2016.
Cruz also chastised Google for how the company handled internal backlash regarding its artificial intelligence (AI) ethics board. (One selected person for the board, a conservative African-American woman, Kay Coles James, worked for conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation and opposed LGBT rights and progressive climate change efforts, so Google employees called for her to be removed, and Google ended up dissolving the board completely. Bhatia also previously worked for the Heritage Foundation.)
“Do you understand that when you see that kind of bias saying, a conservative African-American woman’s views are not valid and not worthy of inclusion, the American people would say, these guys are silencing voices they disagree with?” Cruz asked.
Bhatia reiterated that it didn’t make sense for Google to alienate conservatives because losing user trust “would be damaging to our business.”
“We are a diverse group of people with many different views, but we do recognize there could be challenges with implicit bias, and that’s precisely the reason we construct our search engines and platforms in such a way that bias does not get built in, and core to that is the system of making sure that any change in the algorithm is run based through a rating system which consists of thousands of people throughout the US in 49 states and any change would need to be reviewed by all of them,” Bhatia said.
But Blumenthal, a Democrat, pushed back on Bhatia’s assertion that there isn’t anything wrong with Google’s algorithms, pointing out that conservative commentators on YouTube — like Alex Jones of InfoWars — have harassed families whose children died in the Sandy Hook Massacre, claiming that the massacre never happened.
“This stuff is not speech. It’s harassment, defamation,” Blumenthal said. “I would suggest whatever your machines are, they’re not working.”
Despite the scrutiny, no Democrats or Republicans have introduced a bill or signaled that they’re planning to introduce a bill to deal with the problems they see with Big Tech, other than Hawley’s bill, which both conservatives and liberals condemned.