Innovation

Google’s visit to Congress was a powerful reminder of who is really influencing our lives and culture.

by James Poulos

December 17, 2018
(Google CEO Sundar Pichai /Photo by Sam Churchill/Flickr)

Congress brought Google to Washington and quickly learned who is really in charge.

Not in the traditional sense of power or authority, perhaps. But the tale was told when the company’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, finally gave in and sat before Congress for a clumsy and ultimately fruitless grilling

Daisuke Wakabayashi, the New York Times’ Google reporter (yes, it’s a thing), recounts the moment it happened. A new Times report on location tracking “came up repeatedly during the hearing and in conversations afterward,” Wakabayashi observes. “Even for people well versed in technology, the volume and specificity of location-data collection was shocking.”

“While many expressed concern about the bigness of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, there wasn’t a consensus on how to deal with them. A federal privacy law with real teeth seemed uncertain, and not many folks expected antitrust regulation even in the face of European action.”

In other words? Even the Beltway potentates who don’t bat an eye at the mind-boggling size and scale of the federal government were floored, dwarfed, by just one slice of what today’s tech companies do. And what’s more, they just can’t wrap their minds around what role they’re supposed to play in it all. 

That’s why Pichai was so comfortable sticking to a bland, almost meaningless script. Google provides useful services, he “patiently” explained—crafted to deliver what people want, and to use what they want to help them figure out what they want. Who wouldn’t be at least passingly interested in what’s popular or trending? Google just puts it out there.

Of course, that’s not exactly true. Google’s algorithms are private, not public. It’s just that lawmakers know they can’t exactly get under the hood and start telling a company whose speech to favor by how much for how long. 

There’s a decent amount of pressure building to impose more government regulation on tech companies, it’s true. And to a degree, companies want it! Facebook doesn’t want to spend its time being on the hook for the content its users churn out or glom onto. It’s a platform, not a publisher, according to the Zuckerberg mantra. But Facebook is aware that bad publicity around content is a serious problem—so serious, in fact, that it’d be great if the government just took on the obligation to deal with it. 

Google, however, has had reason to worry. In part, that’s because President Trump has indulged critics on the Right who want, in effect, to break up the biggest tech companies. They’re convinced that bias is inevitable, and because Silicon Valley is full of communist trans furries, or what have you, there’s no option but to use the government to take their power away. 

That’s a sea change from the old mainline conservative view that private corporations are free to run their culture and hire their people as they please. But it does reflect changing reality. The proper interplay of big corporate wealth and social justice is not at all a settled issue on the Left today, and the pivotal role of digital technology in the debate is a big reason why. 

Yet Trump himself appears not to care all that much about the digital concerns of his anti-woke base. He’s a pre-digital guy himself. Yes, he’s a Twitter adept, but that goes to remind us that Twitter is really more like television for everyone than it is like, say, social credit. Trump is probably just as stumped about what role government should play in regulating digital technology as Congress—aside from harboring a general sense that neither tech nor anything else is really going to achieve one big happy global world.  

And that, in sum, is because digital tech is mastering the world and dividing the world—a big shock to pre-digital generations, but a fact of life for those coming after. Younger people have been raised in a technological soup so thick that they know very little can dilute it. Governments are going hard after content and pushing to get their share of taxes on the proceeds. But when it comes to controlling the workings of the digital world, they’re pretty much helpless. 

That could change over time as the world’s younger generations age into positions of real government power. But the digital world—from round-the-clock location tracking to robust social credit systems and beyond—is even bigger than Google. And however useful its tools, they’re anything but neutral. Americans who want to reclaim their political agency in a digital age will have to scale down the Beltway no less than the Valley. 

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Google’s visit to Congress was a powerful reminder of who is really influencing our lives and culture.