The verdict on Sundar Pichai’s visit to Congress

As we head into 2019, its indisputable that our political systems need to assess how to better hold technology companies to account. After watching, for more than three hours, Sundar Pichai testify before Congress, my overriding thought is simply: there must be a better way.

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The US needs to devise new formats for hearings like this. A format that  that caters to progress, rather than the egotistical whims of ill-informed members of Congress.

To compensate for gaps in lawmakers’ knowledge, these hearings need trusted experts, people who can stop the politicians from waddling down lines of questioning that give bosses the chance to trot out a prepared statement.

Or, in Pichai’s case today, a chance to point out the blatently obvious. In all of the tech hearings so far, this has to have been the lowest point:

Still, for now, it is what it is.

On Tuesday, Pichai only looked uncomfortable when being harangued with unanswerable gotchas, such as Rep Poe of Texas demanding to know if Google would track his location if he moves from one side of the room to the other. The answer is, of course, it depends what’s on your phone – not that Pichai was given the chance to respond.

Besides those brief moments, it was a typically calm display from a man apparently mostly on top of one of the most complexes businesses in the world.

Here’s my take for BBC News:

The Verge’s Casey Newton wrote that Pichai skated through the hearing:

After months of polite deferrals, Sundar Pichai finally went before Congress on Tuesday, and over the course of three and a half hours, said as little as possible. The hearing before the House Judiciary Committee was defined, as had been the Facebook hearings before it, by the widespread befuddlement of our lawmakers.

While Wired said Congress “blew” its opportunity:

It was a foreboding reminder of Congress’s continued technological ignorance, and a sign that while lawmakers almost unilaterally agree that something must be done about tech giants’ tremendous power, they remain unwilling to set aside partisan squabbles to actually do anything about it.

Slate Magazine’s Aaron Mak said Republicans “embarrassed themselves” during the session. Though, for what it’s worth, I don’t think many Democrats did much better, opting to attack Republican colleagues rather that using their privileged position to ask a proper question to an extremely powerful man.

But Mak did rightly give praise to the representatives that pressed Pichai on Project Dragonfly, the secretive China plan we know about thanks to various leaks and some great reporting by The Intercept.

From that same Slate piece, here’s a summary of what we learned (or at least, had confirmed):

Pichai acknowledged that there was such an effort but said that there were no current plans to follow through with the project. He also revealed, during questioning from Pennsylvania Rep. Keith Rothfus, that Google at one point had more than 100 people working on the effort. Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline also asked, “Will you, Mr. Pichai, rule out launching a tool for surveillance and censorship in China while you’re CEO of Google?” The CEO talked about the importance of providing information but would not make any commitments on this issue either.

The Washington Post had Pichai’s exit interview, as it were. No great revelations in there, but they’ve promised a follow-up piece that will run on Wednesday.