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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 January 2019

Google CEO denies claim it could swing US elections

A US congressman accused the company of manipulating web searches for political ends

Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington. EPA 
Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington. EPA 

Sundar Pichai, Google's CEO, was accused by a congressman on Tuesday of being able to swing American elections through manipulation of web searches, a claim he denied during testimony on Capitol Hill where he said the company operated free of political bias.

Mr Pichai, making his first appearance in front of Congress members, defended the Silicon Valley tech giant's data use, saying the 2016 presidential election had exposed mistakes over two advertising accounts linked to Russia which the company has since sought to rectify.

But appearing in front of the House Judiciary Committee he came under pressure from Texas Republican Lamar Smith, who accused Google of manipulating search results for political reasons.

“Google could well elect the next president with dire consequences for our democracy,” Mr Smith said, citing a study that said 96 per cent of searches using the word “Trump” would take a user to websites he described as “liberal media”.

Mr Pichai, who has worked at Google for 15 years, the last three as CEO, said the company had taken $4,700 from the “two main accounts to do with Russia”, describing it as “limited activity”.

“We have learned a lot from that,” he added.

In his opening remarks, Mr Pichai said Google was committed to supporting federal privacy legislation and that it had checks and balances on the data that users provide when using the company's products.

“Protecting the privacy and security of our users has long been an essential part of our mission,” he said.

However, he was questioned by committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican, on whether “people knew what they were signing up to” when they agreed to Google's terms and conditions.

“We focus on their knowledge, happiness and success,” Mr Pichai replied, again denying that Google searches contained political bias or that advertising rates – by using keywords - would be cheaper for one political party than for another.

Such rates are “automatically calculated” using “a supply and demand equilibrium,” he told Congress.

“There could be variations based on times of the day and the keywords you are looking for,” he added.

Countering the arguments made by Mr Smith and Mr Goodlatte, Democratic Representative Steve Cohen said the top results from searches of his name had led to conservative outlets, despite him appearing on MSNBC, considered a liberal television network, five times and for eight minutes each time at the weekend.

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Updated: December 11, 2018 09:35 PM

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