Midway through Tuesday’s congressional hearing on Google, Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, held up his iPhone. He asked Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai what would happen if Poe walked over to the Democrats sitting across the aisle.
“Does Google track my movement? Does Google, through this phone, know that I have moved over to the left?” Poe asked. When Pichai hesitated, Poe raised his voice. “It’s either yes or no!” he barked.
“I wouldn’t be able to answer without knowing more details, sir,” Pichai replied.
That was among the most telling exchanges in three hours of House Judiciary Committee testimony that showed how uncomfortable lawmakers are with the volume of user data Google and other internet companies collect.
Pichai fielded a range of queries: On the political slants of his staff and algorithms; on Chinese censorship and surveillance; and “Frazzledrip,” a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton spread on YouTube. Many failed to stick and the deferential, soft-spoken CEO avoided costly blunders in his first appearance in front of Congress.
But the hearing’s focus on Google’s information hoard is a risk for the world’s largest internet company as Democrats prepare to take control of the House next month. Lawmakers from both parties returned again and again to the ways Google collects data from mobile phones, web browsers and the real world, and how users often aren’t aware of the scope of this digital dragnet.