During a Big Tech hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) asked Google CEO Sundar Pichai to promise the American people that Google would not “tailor its features” to help presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. Pichai hemmed and hawed, but he ultimately offered a vague commitment to be impartial in the election.
“Mr. Pichai, is Google going to tailor its features to help Joe Biden in the 2020 election?” Jordan asked.
“Congressman, we approach our work, we support both campaigns today. We think political ads is [sic] an important part of free speech in democratic societies, and we engage with campaigns you know according to law and we approach our work in a nonpartisan way,” the Google CEO responded.
“It’s a yes or no question,” Jordan responded. “Can you assure Americans today you won’t tailor your features to help Joe Biden in the upcoming election?”
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“We support work that campaigns do,” Pichai said, referring to ads, hosting, and other services Google provides.
“I understand that,” the congressman replied. He said he was not concerned about Google’s services offered equally to everyone, he was concerned about Google tailoring its features “to help, specifically help, one candidate over another.”
“We won’t do any work to politically tilt anything one way or the other, it’s against our core values,” Pichai insisted.
Then Jordan explained the source of his concern. “But you did it in 2016,” he said. “Ms. Eliana Murillo, head of your multicultural marketing, talks about the silent donation Google made to the Clinton campaign, and you applauded her work.”
Jordan was referring to an email chain unearthed by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson in September 2018. In that email chain, Murillo wrote that Google “pushed to get out the Latino vote with our features in key states.” She went on to say that the company “supported partners like Voto Latino to pay for rides to the polls in key states.”
While Voto Latino is technically a non-partisan entity dedicated to encouraging Latinos to vote, in reality, it swings heavily in one direction. Hillary Clinton endorsed the organization in 2018. In 2016, Voto Latino declared that all Hispanics are in Trump’s “crosshairs.”
Later in the email chain, Murillo lamented Trump’s victory and suggested Google expected the Latino vote to put Clinton over the top. “Ultimately after all was said and done, the Latino community did come out to vote and completely surprised us. We never anticipated that 29 percent of Latinos would vote for Trump. No one did,” the Google executive wrote. “If you see a Latino Googler in the office please give them a smile. They are probably hurting right now.” She went on to say she postponed a vacation in order to “support my community through these difficult times.”
Tucker Carlson characterized Google’s efforts as “in effect an in-kind contribution to the Hillary Clinton for President campaign.”
It remains unclear exactly which “features” Google allegedly tailored in order to help Clinton. As the New York Times‘s Farhad Manjoo noted last month that “if Google somehow went rogue and decided to throw an election to a favored candidate, it would only have to alter a small fraction of search results to do so. If the public did spot evidence of such an event, it would look thin and inconclusive, too.”
Robert Epstein, a Ph.D. psychologist who studies search engine manipulation effects, found that Google’s bias can explain Clinton’s popular vote margin of victory.
Jordan told Pichai, “I just want to make sure you’re not going to do it again in 2020.”
“Congressman, I recall our conversation at that time,” the Google CEO responded. He insisted, however, that the company “didn’t find any evidence of such activity.”
“We have clearly communicated to our employees, any personal political activity, while that’s their right, needs to happen on their own time and resources,” he insisted.
“I can assure you we complied with laws in 2016, as a company,” Pichai added.
Jordan asked him to commit that “you’re not going to tailor your features, configure your platform, in a way to help Joe Biden, and second that you’re not going to use your search engine to silence conservatives.”
Pichai dodged on the second question. “Congressman, on our search engine, conservatives have more access to information than ever before,” he said.
After Jordan repeated his question, Google’s CEO finally said, “You have my commitment, it’s always been true, and we will continue to conduct ourselves in a neutral way.”
Forgive me if I’m not convinced.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.