Google has faced revolt from multiple fronts recently, and this month the company received more potentially bad news. CEO Sundar Pichai has been called to testify before Congress. Again. The last time Pichai was scheduled to speak before a Senate committee, things didn’t go well. That clash resulted in an empty chair where Pichai was scheduled to be sitting. The image of a hearing that didn’t happen and an empty chair telegraphing the reason didn’t exactly endear the Google CEO to the committee looking into complaints against various tech and social media companies.
The specific issue at hand, driven mainly by Republican Senators, is a question of whether Google “harbors bias or ill will” toward conservative bloggers, vloggers, podcasters and opinion makers. This time, though, Pichai is schedule to face the House Judiciary Committee, which released a statement saying: “The hearing will examine potential bias and the need for greater transparency regarding the filtering practices of tech giant Google …”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested “Google might not be wielding its vast power impartially …” adding that the company’s “business practices may have been affected by political bias.
Google is, as of this writing, not commenting on Pichai’s impending testimony, neither on what it expects he may have to comment about or to indicate what the company’s position may be. While Google is only the latest tech company to be called before Congress — Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was recently in that once-empty hot seat — the timing is pretty bad. Pichai's testimony will happen while Google is still in the headlines, thanks to not one but two public outcries from the company's own team, angry about issues ranging from what they see as an inappropriate resolution of internal sexual misconduct claims to Google’s apparent willingness to curtail free speech in order to win a piece of the massive Chinese consumer tech market.
Tech industry insiders are already saying this will likely be another conspiracy-laden show without much substance, but the optics are important for both sides. Google needs to be seen as a company concerned about protecting the free exchange of ideas — especially in light of the China controversy — and Congress needs to be seen as acting on the fears and uncertainties many of their constituents feel about the current Internet marketplace of ideas.
Most don’t expect much to be resolved in these meetings, but it’s an opportunity for Google to shift the current narrative, which has been especially unkind to the tech giant in recent weeks.