Republicans, Citing Bias, Give Google the Third Degree

WASHINGTON — Google executives, after months of mostly avoiding the harsh spotlight put on their internet peers, are being grilled in Washington this week by lawmakers questioning if the Silicon Valley giant is living up to its promise to be a neutral arbiter of online information.

On Friday, Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, will meet with Representative Kevin McCarthy, of California, the Republican House majority leader and a vocal critic of Google, and more than two dozen Republicans to discuss complaints the company is trying to silence conservative voices.

“Google has a lot of questions to answer about reports of bias in its search results, violations of user privacy, anticompetitive behavior, and business dealings with repressive regimes like China,” Mr. McCarthy said in a statement.

The Friday meeting will cap a week of tech-related sessions in Washington in which Google — in the cross hairs of Silicon Valley’s conservative critics since late summer — has played a starring role.

At a gathering of the heads of the Justice Department and a dozen state attorneys general on Tuesday, Google was mentioned more than any other company when it came to concerns about antitrust enforcement and privacy practices, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

At a Senate hearing discussing online privacy on Wednesday, Google’s chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, received the toughest and broadest array of questions from lawmakers who wanted to know about the company’s consideration of introducing search services in China. Google says it is not close to starting such a service.

In a letter to the Senate committee holding the hearing, a former employee, Jack Poulson, said Google’s building a search engine that would be acceptable to the government of China was a “catastrophic failure of the internal privacy review process.” He said this was part of a “broad pattern of unaccountable decision making.”

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, also questioned Mr. Enright about claims of bias against conservatives in search results. “I can tell you that millions of Texans believe Google is actively censoring the speech of conservatives,” Mr. Cruz said.

On Thursday, Harmeet Dhillon, a lawyer and Republican Party official, is set to testify in the House about anti-conservative bias in tech. Ms. Dhillon represents several former employees in a lawsuit filed last year against Google that claims the company discriminated against them based on their political beliefs.

Google’s week in Washington comes three weeks after executives from Twitter and Facebook testified in a Senate hearing dedicated to Russian disinformation on social media. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, also spoke at a House hearing about claims of anti-conservative bias at Twitter.

Google executives did not attend the Senate hearing, though they were invited. The company offered to send Kent Walker, a senior vice president for global affairs who is also the company’s top lawyer. But urged on by Facebook officials, according to two people familiar with the matter, senators insisted on a more powerful executive. Google refused.

It was the “worst business decision of 2018,” said Scott Galloway, a founder of the business research firm Gartner L2 and a professor of marketing at New York University Stern School of Business. “It feels like the tide has turned substantially,” Mr. Galloway said. “They’ve sort of poked the bear.”

A Google spokeswoman said officials from the company had testified before Congress 22 times since 2008. “We’re happy to continue explaining our products and practices,” Becca Rutkoff, the Google spokeswoman, said in a statement.

For longtime Google critics and even some of its Silicon Valley peers, it is surprising that Google has avoided the spotlight for so long.

It has 90 percent of the global search market — a share so high that it has for years had to sidestep concerns that it is a dominant monopoly that needs to be regulated. Competitors have long claimed that Google is using its search dominance to advantage its own services and should be controlled by antitrust laws.

The Google-owned YouTube video service is also dominant, and has for several years faced questions about videos that show terrorist violence and disinformation, similar to issues that Facebook and Twitter have had to address in congressional hearings.

And Google has faced several claims of bias. A video of a staff meeting held shortly after Donald J. Trump was elected president, leaked two weeks ago, showed several senior Google executives, including Mr. Pichai, expressing their alarm.

Emails leaked last week showed lower-level Google employees discussing whether they could alter search results to counter President Trump’s travel ban on people from predominantly Muslim countries. Google is adamant that no one in a position to make such a change seriously considered it.

Employees are bracing for more embarrassing leaks. The company has long encouraged workers to speak their minds on internal message boards. That includes politics.

The conservative pressure on Google started to escalate in late summer. On Aug. 28, Mr. Trump, in a series of tweets, attacked Google for what he claimed was an effort to suppress conservative media that was favorable to his administration.

The next day, the president posted a video that seemed to show that Google did not promote his State of the Union address on its home page as it had in the past for President Obama. He used the hashtag #StopTheBias. The video was incorrect. Google said that it didn’t promote Mr. Obama’s inaugural address, a joint statement to Congress but not technically a State of the Union address, in 2009 either.

Shortly after, other Republicans were calling for regulations and greater scrutiny. Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, called for antitrust regulators to reopen an investigation into Google.

Some Google officials wonder if competitors are organizing a campaign to prompt regulatory scrutiny.

At the Senate hearing Google did not attend, lawmakers mentioned a report that had come out a day before from the Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit watchdog group that often publishes research critical of Google. The group posed as Russian trolls to buy what it called politically divisive ads on Google’s systems, which failed to stop them.

Google called the report “a stunt” by its rivals and blamed the software maker Oracle for its release. Ken Glueck, a senior vice president at Oracle, said it had made a one-time financial contribution in 2016 to the Campaign for Accountability but denied that the company had any involvement in the report.

Google has many business opponents in Washington, including telecommunication giants like AT&T and Comcast. Oracle and News Corp. have put significant resources into funding third-party coalitions and public relations firms to place ads and to lobby lawmakers on Google’s dominance in search and on allegations it uses its power to unfairly harm publishers and other tech rivals.

But few companies have been as tenacious as Yelp, a midsize internet outfit with far fewer resources. It has waged a seven-year battle to get regulatory agencies around the world to investigate Google. Until recently, its calls have been largely ignored in the United States. The company claims Google prioritized its own reviews over others, making it much harder for competing reviews sites like Yelp to be discovered.

Early in September, a White House official received an email with an attachment from Luther Lowe, the senior vice president for policy for Yelp.

“Check out the attachment,” Mr. Lowe wrote in an email. “Tell me what you think.”

The attachment was a document called, “Executive Draft Order to Protect American Competition and Small Businesses From Bias in Online Platforms.” It was a draft presidential order instructing antitrust officials to recommend ways to protect competition and clamp down on content bias on internet search and social media sites.

Mr. Lowe said in an email that he did not know the origins of the document and that it had been forwarded to him.

Daisuke Wakabayashi and Cecelia Kang, NYTIMES 9/17/18

Ray Myers

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Political Messaging on Facebook

Trump is now the single biggest political advertiser on Facebook. So what’s your favorite addiction? Politics or social media? I think it is now safe to say after the last election, that if you like to get your “fake news” online, you were among those who were the most helpful in getting Trump elected. He may not have gotten the most individual Americans’ votes, but he certainly knew where the most counted and where to place his political ads, Facebook.

He still continues today and will probably continue to take the most advantage of Facebook’s hypnotic hold on those who believe that everything that they read or see online must be true! This is now the age of believing in your own opinions, regardless of what the facts may be. “If it’s online, it must be true.” As discussed on this blog on Monday, political consultants have said that Democrats who are running for election are spending a smaller percentage of their ad budgets on digital ads than their rivals, sometimes as little as 10 percent versus 40 percent for Republicans. That has spurred volunteer efforts in Silicon Valley, which is widely regarded as liberal, to help bring Democratic campaigns into the digital age.

The new digital political age? And if you can’t get enough followers, make them up.

Ray Myers

Where Have All the Reporters Gone? To the Internet Every One

“The Internet, put simply, is a low-cost communications network. Everything else, like the web, builds on top of that. And having so much information online can be a gold mine for reporting . . . Silicon Valley is a caldron of innovation.

But all of the big issues surrounding technology impact on the world – like automation, economic opportunity and income disparity – are playing out outside the tech hubs, across the $20 trillion American economy. Tons of research is being done on those subjects, and it’s all online . . . What it means is that you can test your assumptions for any trend or explanatory story . . . The other similar change is the ease, speed and cost of one-to-one communication means you can talk to far more people, wherever they are, on any given story. (NY Times, 6/28/18).”

So it’s all about the innovation and change. But that may not be the information people are looking for. It seems that a lot of Americans (not the majority) felt that the country had to be made “Great Again.”

Ray Myers

P.S. Happy Fourth of July. Enjoy the holiday “week.” Will be back on Monday, July 9th.

Empowering Everyone With Technology

Microsoft is now trying on the role as moral leader in a tech world now facing increasing public criticism. I think you all know who they are, so let’s just say that Facebook is leading the pack. Microsoft is the only one to avoid sustained public criticism about contributing to the social ills of the last couple of years..

At the same time, Microsoft has emerged as one of the most outspoken advocates in the industry for protecting user privacy and establishing ethical guidelines for new technology like artificial intelligence (A.I.). They have launched a new program. A.I. for Accessibility that will award $25 million over five years to researchers, nonprofits and developers who use artificial intelligence to help people with disabilities.

Echoing a theme he talked about at Microsoft’s conference last year, Satya Nadella, its chief, said that the industry has a responsibility to build technology that empowered everyone.

Ray Myers

Digital Revolution Is Leaving Black Americans Behind

Black Americans are frequent users of technology, and have helped build social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram into the giants they are today. But they aren’t reaping the same economic benefits of the tech boom as white Americans, and low rates of black employment in the tech industry are a large part of the reason why.

A new study released on Friday sheds light on this issue. The State of Black America 2018, a report published annually by the National Urban League, compares how black and white people fare in a number of areas, including housing, economics, education, social justice, and civic engagement.

This year’s report pays particular attention to black Americans’ access Digital Revolution is Leaving Black People Behind to jobs in the tech industry and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. The study reveals that while black people are one of the racial groups most likely to use smartphones and have created thriving communities on platforms like Twitter, those high rates of usage haven’t translated into employment.

“And this is largely because the tech industry has failed to hire black STEM grads and transition them into careers in Silicon Valley, where many of these jobs are basedIn the vast majority of [social media and tech] companies, fewer than five percent of the workforce is African American,” the authors of the report note. “By contrast, at least half of the workforce in these companies is white.Marc Morial, CEO of the National Urban League, notes that this isn’t new — black Americans have repeatedly been left behind when America’s technology makes a leap forward, be it when slavery and Reconstruction blocked black people from the benefits of farming technology, or when technological revolutions in the North were less accessible to poor black people fleeing the South. Over generations, the effect of this lack of inclusion has compounded, leading us to the disparities that exist today.

And, as the report indicates, none of this happens in a vacuum. When black workers are shut out of higher-income jobs, like in tech, it adds to the already significant income gap — the median income for white households is $63,155, while it’s only $38,555 for black households. There’s a persistent wealth gap as well, which hasn’t improved much since the 1960s.

“We’re trying to shine a spotlight on the fact that this is an area where the country has to improve,” Morial says.

Silicon Valley has faced mounting criticism for its lack of diversity

Unfortunately, the tech world’s lack of diversity is a stubborn problem that doesn’t seem to be going away. Despite media attention and criticism, top companies continue to hire small numbers of black employees. At companies like Uber, Twitter, Google, and Facebook, fewer than 3 percent of tech workers identify as black.

In 2015, the Congressional Black Caucus launched an extended effort to press Silicon Valley to boost its black employment numbers, with several members of Congress traveling to meet with various tech industry leaders. The efforts have led to some change — the 3 percent figure above actually reflects slight growth at places like Facebook.

The caucus has continued to pressure tech companies to improve further. When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified on Capitol Hill last month about Facebook’s ability to protect users’ privacy, black lawmakers took him to task for his company’s persistent lack of diversity, saying that Facebook “does not reflect America.”

And on April 30, lawmakers traveled to Silicon Valley for a third time to engage in a series of discussions with tech companies. Some members, including Rep. Maxine Waters, have threatened that lawmakers could introduce stricter measures to regulate the industry if companies can’t improve on their own.

The CBC members argue that efforts to increase black employment are not simply due to the economic opportunities presented by a high-paying tech job but are also about increasing protections for minority users. Black people are often targeted on social media and other internet-based platforms, facing racism on Twitter, discrimination from Airbnb hosts, or exploitation from fake Facebook pages.

Morial argues that while the tech industry has said promising things about improving diversity, it needs to do more — in hiring as well as in increasing training and investment in black students and improving educational pipelines.

Perhaps another “Inconvenient Truth” as Al Gore would say!

Ray Myers

Some Springtime Tech Facts and Saudis Go to Silicon Valley

The recent rankings of Educational Technology firms’ market performance are surprising and curious to me. I had always assumed that Apple had the lead in America’s classrooms, but not so. Here is the latest as reported in this week’s NY Times. “In a bid to take back some of the education market from Google, Apple on Tuesday plans to introduce new hardware and software for schools and students. But Apple has fallen to third place, behind Google and Microsoft, in the battle to own America’s classroom. So the new items may not move the needle much.”

Speaking of Microsoft, a delegation of Saudi Arabian officials including the country’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, will be meeting with Bill Gates some time this week. I guess they are still looking for that “secret sauce” that will revolutionize Saudi education through a critical combination of hardware and software that will make them the envy of school systems around the world. But I am still wondering what they will do to involve their classroom teachers as part of this revolutionary mission? Maybe I should just stop worrying so much. Trump will obviously do whatever he can do to help them, for whatever reasons?

Educational Technology is certainly changing our world in how we educate our younger generations, but all these new tools are only as effective as the teachers who use them, and have some part in choosing them.

Ray Myers

P.S. A short spring time break for me this weekend. Enjoy your holidays. I will return on Monday, April 2.

Sex-Trafficking on the Internet

“Pressure has been mounting for social media companies and other internet giants to be better stewards of their powerful platforms (NY Times, 2/28/18).” A bill to force these companies to better monitor their online content passed the House earlier this week.” A similar bill in the Senate is expected to pass soon.

Facebook, in particular, has come under pressure over the spread of misinformation and the exertion of foreign interference during the 2016 presidential election. Democratic and Republican lawmakers have called for regulations, including disclosures on political advertising, but those efforts have been slow to gain wide support. Some experts have concluded that there is clearly not a willingness for the government to pursue fundamental business model changes.

Sex, politics, and profits, in any order you choose.

Ray Myers

Silicon Valley – Land of the “Bros”

Sex and Tech. A curious story you might say, but one that has seemed to evolve over the past fifty years when someone decided (researched?) that good programmers were antisocial. Was this because most of the good programmers were men, or was it that men just wanted to keep it that way? Or is it that this is simply self-perpetuating stereotype that no one has challenged over the years?

There is no evidence to suggest that antisocial men are better at computers than women. But the stereotype has been accepted to this day. Emily Chang has recently written a book entitled Brotopia. “It is systemic. Bad behavior has been tolerated and normalized for far too long. And people simply have a narrow idea of who can do these jobs. If you’re a woman in the tech industry, you’re the only woman in the room over and over again . . . These stories a have to be told; otherwise it perpetuates a culture of keeping women down.”

“This is not just tech’ problem. This is society’s problem. And the industry that changed the world can change this.”

Ray Myers

(Early edition for Friday, 2/16/18)

Hate on the Internet

Talk about your unintended consequences!  At least I don’t think “social networking” on the Internet was envisioned as creating a platform for hate groups and terrorists in the U.S.  Unfortunately this has come to pass before our very eyes in the deadly confrontations in Charlottesville last weekend.   Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that such groups are also able to raise funds for their reprehensible intentions to spread hatred for blacks, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, feminist activists, etc., thanks, in some measure to “funding” sites that solicit contributions online.  The sites themselves are not the culprits, but the hate groups that use them for such purposes must be stopped.  PayPal, for example, has already agreed to remove at least 34 organizations that include companies that are selling gun accessories explicitly explicitly for killing Muslims!

Silicon Valley firms may be ill-prepared to manage such a large societal role.  These companies have limited experience handling these issues.  They must answer to share-holders and demonstrate growth in users and profits – weighing in on free speech matters risks alienating large groups of customers across the political spectrum.  These platforms are so massive – Facebook, for example, counts a third of the world’s population in its monthly user base:  GoDaddy hosts and registers 71 million websites – it may actually be impossible for them to enforce their policies consistently.  But tech companies are reportedly forging ahead.  At this point it appears to be an industry-lead initiative that has been decried by some “alt-right” leaders as intrusive censorship that could lead to increased government “”meddling.”

Spewing hatred on the Internet, to my mind, is not exercising free speech.  We are constantly being reminded that “words have consequences” in our daily political discourse.  Freedom of speech demands that we use words to ensure a freedom of expression that does not foment hatred.

Ray Myers



Baby, You Can Drive My Car. Or Not.

Remember the old “Yellow Pages” ad when you were encouraged to let your fingers do the walking.  Now it seems that you may be letting your fingers do the driving.  Autonomous driving, electric cars and ride-hailing apps from Silicon Valley, like Uber, are reshaping transportation.  Young people no longer feel as compelled as previous generations to own cars.  Experts in the transportation sector are changing rapidly.  The whole “mobility market” – transportation as a service – is just at the beginning.

In Germany, under an initiative called Industry 4.0, they are striving to help the country thrive in a smartphone world. The future of Germany as an industrial nation depends on how companies succeed in bringing the manufacturing and digital worlds together.  Industry executives there often cite how Apple’s iPhone quickly erased Nokia’s once-dominant position in the mobile handset market, and they are determined not to let something similar to happen to them.  Google is also entering the driverless car market.  Their market value is more than double that of BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen combined.   So instead of owning and driving your own car, you may soon find that your smartphone could be the best means of “ride-hailing” you have.   It will enable you to chose the most convenient means of vehicular travel available to you at any given place and time.

But I wouldn’t get rid of your new BMW, Mercedes, or Volkswagen quite yet.  Maybe you can become a ride service  provider yourself.  You can let your passengers work/play on their iPhones while you enjoy the ride.  That may even be more fun.

Ray Myers

Doing It All Virtually

Now we all know that Siri is a very smart piece of artificial intelligence (AI), but have you heard about Viv?  She (I think that’s the voice gender, or maybe you can choose) is even smarter.  Her creators like to call her a virtual assistant more than simple piece of AI.  For the past four years the same people who brought you Siri have been working on creating Viv.  She who will do more than just give you requested information.  Using simple voice commands, she will actually do things for you, like ordering a pizza delivered to your doorstep.  Please don’t ask me why ordering a pizza is the most critical task in assessing the performance of a virtual assistant.  I guess you just get hungry putting all those pieces of code together?

In all fairness, Viv has moved on from ordering pizza.  She can order a car, flowers, turn lights off and on in your home, and is talking with other potential partners to unite many businesses into a single, unbroken conversation: television companies, car companies, media companies, and makers of smart refrigerators, etc.  Forget all those apps, unless you really like living in an earlier technological era.

It’s the latest and easily the biggest time-saver in our busy and more connected world.  So what are you going to do with all that free time?  Looks like you will have more time to do things in the real world.

Ray Myers

E-Commerce and Cardboard

An alternative title for this post could be “Instant Gratification.”  So what does all this have to do with technology?  Well it’s all about shopping online, and receiving lots of purchases at your front door courtesy of UPS, FedEx etc.  Therefore, you will have lots of cardboard boxes and assorted packaging materials to dispose of after opening your conveniently delivered purchases.  And waiting times seem to be shortening as a simple click on the desired item on your computer screen or smartphone will result in almost instant delivery (gratification!)

Remember the days of conspicuous consumption?  Now it seems that the most conspicuous aspect of our online consumption is the amount of cardboard that is accumulating in people’s trash.  How about 100 tons a day in San Francisco alone where this E-Commerce boom was generated by the rise of technology entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley, creating a business model that was soon replicated around the world.  This is the “cyber retail business” world we now live in, and it looks like there is no turning back.

Ironically, some leaders in the cardboard recycling business are having a hard time keeping up and offer this advice: “Slow down consumption, slow down.”

Ray Myers


Making Artificial Intelligence Harmless?

How little we really know or maybe it’s just me.  Last week I blogged about the wonders of artificial intelligence (AI) and how it could have done miraculous things for characters like the Strawman in the Wizard of Oz.  Little did I know that prominent leaders in the scientific community are concerned that this technological power could also be used in ways that can potentially do more harm than good. 

To combat the imminent abuse of this powerful scientific resource for destructive purposes such as killer robots (e.g., terminators), leading tech entrepreneurs and companies have joined forces.  A new non-profit group has been formed called Open AI with a mega-fund of one billion dollars dedicated to finding and funding positive uses for AI.  Their intended mission is to do everything they can to ensure that the same tech that could support “killing machines” gets used for good instead.

Some say one billion dollars will not be enough.  A future where terminators could exist is basically inevitable.   Bill Gates has also expressed the urgency of this issue, stating that he does not “understand why some people are not concerned” about the possibility of a rogue, self-aware robot.  Artificial intelligence may help us address an array of human challenges but it is still man who decides how to use it best.

Ray Myers

Heads-up in Your Car

Keep your eyes on the road and keep your heads up.  In a very short time it looks like you will still have to keep your eyes on the road and on your Heads-up at the same time.  You will soon feel like a jet pilot except you will be driving your car on terra firma.  And instead of seeing puffy white clouds as you glide through the open skies, you will be looking at cars and trucks competing with you for open space on busy highways. 

Now will this all help us improve our driving skills?  I guess the answer is that it should, but I remember failing my first driver’s license test because I could not parallel park.  My excuse at that time was that I was driving a stick shift in the family Ford.  Well I still can’t parallel park very well (maybe not at all when my wife is in the car), but I am sure that my next car will probably help me do that thanks to improved spatial technologies.

I better start learning to use all these improved driving technologies soon before I become a relic of the automotive past.  Just another “heads up” for everyone: Jaguar is working on a “360 Virtual Urban Windscreen.”  While you are driving it will highlight pedestrians, show points of interest and display a “ghost car” that drivers could follow for directions.  I only hope I can keep my eyes on the road, and still sing along with the radio at the same time.  Whew!

Ray Myers