‘Clearly trust and patience in your company and the behavior of your monopoly has run out…’
“Almost 90 percent of internet searches in the United States use Google,” Cruz said. “Google’s domination of the search-engine market is so complete that ‘to Google’ is now a commonplace verb. With that market power, Google can and often does control our discourse.”
Cruz said Google often blames its algorithms for censoring conservatives, but “Google’s search engine ins’t some supernatural force. It’s a computer program written and maintained by people.”
“The American people are subject to both overt censorship and covert manipulation. I believe it’s time to rethink that deal,” Cruz said, referring to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives Big Tech companies immunity from liability on the assumption that they will act as neutral arbiters, not ideological enforcers.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, the ranking Democratic member on the subcommittee, said “claims of anti-conservative bias in the tech industry are baseless,” later calling them “bogus.”
Hirono flipped the script, claiming that technology companies are not able to police “racist” content appropriately because they fear “being tarred as ‘biased.'”
“According to a report by Vice, Twitter is afraid to use the proactive algorithmic approach it uses to remove ISIS-related content to rid the platform of white supremacist content,” Hirono said. “The reason: Twitter is afraid it might also catch content posted by Republican politicians.”
Karan Bhatia, vice president for government affairs and public policy at Google, began his testimony with a defense of Google.
“I am a first-generation American. My parents imparted to me an abiding passion for the principles of free speech, democracy and free markets, and this same passion makes me enormously gratified to work at Google, a company that embodies these values every day, around the world,” Bhatia said. “Google is a proudly American company.”
However, he also touted its mission as a global company to meet a broader set of needs and priorities.
“Google needs to be useful for everyone, regardless of race, nationality, or political leanings,” Bhatia said. “We have a strong business incentive to prevent anyone from interfering with the integrity of our products or the results we provide to our users. So let me be clear: Google is not politically biased.”
He said Google’s platform is “analytically objective” and “apolitical.”
“From time to time, for example, political ads may violate our advertising guidelines and we’ve disallowed ads from both Democrats and Republicans,” Bhatia said.
After Bhatia claimed Google was a politically neutral platform, Cruz showed him a Google document titled, “The Good Censor: How Can Google Reassure the World that It Protects Users from Harmful Content While Still Supporting Free Speech.”
The Google document offers a “balancing act between two incompatible positions:” On one hand, 100 percent commitment to the “American tradition that prioritizes free speech for democracy, not civility,” and on the other hand, 100 percent commitment to the “European tradition that favors dignity over liberty, and civility over freedom.”
Cruz sought further clarification on how these could be reconciled without suppressing certain values.
“According to Google’s document, The Good Censor, Google says, ‘Tech firms have gradually shifted away from unmediated free speech and toward censorship and moderation,'” Cruz said, before asking, “Is it accurate?”
The document is a “thought experiment,” Bhatia responded.
“It’s not reflective, necessarily, of the views of the company as a whole,” Bhatia said, though he admitted that YouTube might restrict videos that contain “violent extremism” or “hate speech.”
Cruz asked Bhatia about YouTube’s alleged censorship of Dennis Prager‘s videos, including videos on the Ten Commandments and the history of the nation of Israel.
“All of Mr. Prager’s videos are available to 98 percent of YouTube viewers,” Bhatia said. “1.5 percent of our viewers have activated, again, this restricted mode: churches, schools, maybe libraries.”
Bhatia said YouTube restricted these videos due to mentions of rape, murder or other harsh content.
“They’re not censored. They’re available to everybody who’s using normal YouTube,” Bhatia said. “They are not available to the small subset who have chosen to activate restricted mode.”
Hirono’s staff displayed a chart showing that YouTube puts 22.9 percent of PragerU’s videos in restricted mode, compared to higher percentages for left-wing shows.
“The Young Turks,” for example, had 60.52 percent of its videos put into restricted mode. “Last Week Tonight” had 63.27 percent in restricted mode.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asked Bhatia about Google’s censorship projects in China, including Dragonfly, which was a search engine intended to fit the communist regime’s strict censorship requirements.
Bhatia said Google canceled Dragonfly. He also said Google had not been infiltrated by Chinese spies.
Hawley asked Bhatia whether Google’s content moderation policies have an ideological leaning.
Bhatia said they do not, adding that it would be “contrary to our mission, contrary to our business interest, and it would be incompatible with the systems that we build to work political bias [into our algorithms].”
“Clearly trust and patience in your company and the behavior of your monopoly has run out,” Hawley said. “It has certainly run out with me, and I think it’s time for some accountability.”
Cruz asked Bhatia about negative comments Google employees have made about talk hosts, including Prager, Ben Shaprio and Jordan Peterson.
Bhatia said that statements made by employees do not reflect Google’s official policies or the views of its management.