A U.S. House committee grilled Google’s CEO on Tuesday about possible bias on the search engine — including image search results for “idiot” that might not please the president.
“Right now, if you Google the word ‘idiot’ under images, a picture of Donald Trump comes up. I just did that,” Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren said at the hearing. “How would that happen? How does search work so that would occur?”
Lofgren, who represents San Jose, California, said before asking the question that she believes “it’s important to talk about how search works.”
Google CEO Sundar Pichai gave the House Judiciary Committee a detailed explanation.
“Any time you type in a keyword, as Google we have gone out and crawled and stored copies of billions of (web) pages in our index. And we take the keyword and match it against their pages and rank them based on over 200 signals — things like relevance, freshness, popularity, how other people are using it,” Pichai explained. “And based on that, at any given time, we try to rank and find the best search results for that query.”
Pichai also explained some quality control measures.
“Then we evaluate them with external raters, and they evaluate it to objective guidelines,” he said. “And that’s how we make sure the process is working.”
When a McClatchy reporter did an image search for “idiot” on Tuesday after the question was asked, all but four of the top 17 pictures that came up included the president or his two adult sons. Some of those images were associated with articles about the fact that Googling “idiot” brings up pictures of the president. The first photo that appeared wasn’t actually Trump — it was a Belgian painter’s work called “The Idiot,” which appears on the Wikipedia page for the word “idiot.”
Pichai’s answer appeared to please Lofgren.
“So it’s not some little man sitting behind the curtain figuring out what we’re going to show the users,” she said. “It’s basically a compilation of what users are generating and trying to sort through that information.”
House Republicans said they wanted to hold the hearing — entitled “Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices” — to make sure the search giant is being impartial.
“Americans put their trust in big tech companies to honor freedom of speech and champion open dialogue,” Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia said in a statement before the hearing.
Trump himself has accused Google of surfacing negative news about him over positive stories.
“Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake News Media,” the president wrote on Twitter in August. “In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent.”
Lawmakers at Tuesday’s hearing pointed to a couple studies in criticizing Google for possible bias, but instances cited were from “less-than-authoritative sources,” Axios reports.
“To date, no credible evidence has been presented that suggests Google engineers program the company’s search, video or news algorithms to favor one political ideology over another,” Axios’ Sara Fischer writes.