Technology

Seven things to watch as Google's CEO appears before Congress hearing

Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Google's Sundar Pichai failed to show up at a Senate hearing earlier this year and was represented by an empty chair

Google's chief Sundar Pichai will be quizzed by US lawmakers later.

He previously failed to appear at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing for top tech executives in September. An empty chair marked his absence.

That hearing was attended by Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter's chief executive Jack Dorsey, who made their own mea culpas.

Now it's Mr Pichai's turn, and he shouldn't expect an easy ride.

Scheduled to begin at 10:00 local time (15:00 GMT) in Washington DC.

In prepared remarks released ahead of the hearing, Mr Pichai emphasised how proud he was of his company's work to "empower people around the world, especially in the US".

Here are seven things that could come up.

1. Project Dragonfly

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Google chief Sundar Pichai will testify alone

Google has been toying with creating a controversial search engine for China codenamed Project Dragonfly, as first reported by the Intercept in August and later confirmed by the tech firm's own privacy chief.

Google has history in China, launching a search engine in the authoritarian state in 2006, google.cn.

It was compliant with the Chinese government's censorship requirements at the time but pulled the plug in 2010, citing increasing concerns about cyber-attacks on activists.

The potential move back into the country comes at a tense time in relations between the US and China, to say the least.

While a trade war between the nations has recently been put on pause for three months, the arrest of Huawei's chief finance officer Meng Wanzhou in Canada is keeping things frosty.

The committee may question the timing of Google's push into China.

In his prepared testimony Mr Pichai says "even as we expand into new markets we never forget our American roots".

2. Political bias

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption Donald Trump tweets about alleged bias by Google against him

Claims, often unsubstantiated, about bias against conservative politicians have been raised several times on Twitter by President Trump, with the hashtag #Stopthebias.

He's accused Google of failing to promote his State of the Union addresses and "controlling what we can and cannot see".

Mr Pichai addresses this issue in his opening statement saying: "I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure our products continue to operate that way."

3. Data collection

Eight of Google's services have more than one billion users each: YouTube, the Chrome browser, Gmail, Google Maps, Drive, the Android and Google Play stores and of course its search engine.

The way it handles this immense amount of personal data should come under scrutiny.

In August, Google was reported to be tracking its users locations even when location services were switched off.

4. Security breaches

A security breach on social network Google+ earlier this year led to an announcement that the service was closing down.

A blog post revealed that 500,000 people were revealed to have had personal details exposed to third-party app developers.

On Monday, Google announced a further 52.5 million people had been exposed in November via a separate bug and that it was shutting down the service four months earlier than planned, by April 2019.

In light of other recent data breaches on Amazon, Facebook, Yahoo and Marriott, the hearing may want reassurances from Mr Pichai that he is taking data protection seriously.

5. Extraordinary influence

Google controls 92% of global search traffic according to analytics tool StatCounter.

Its closest competitors are Bing and Yahoo with just over 2% each.

But some are troubled by how mysterious the way the search engine's algorithms work are to outsiders.

6. Sexual harassment

Google had its own #metoo moment this year, when Mr Pichai revealed in a letter to staff that 48 people had been sacked for sexual harassment since 2016, including 13 who were at senior level and above.

On 1 November, tens of thousands of Google staff walked out around the world to protest against the company's practices.

In return, Mr Pichai said he would increase transparency around instances of sexual harassment, expand mandatory training, and offer increased support for those with claims.

But the Tech Workers Coalition said the measures did not go nearly far enough, particularly in cases relating to contractors who worked with the firm.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California

7. Fair wages

Along with sexual harassment, Google has been accused of operating a so-called "shadow workforce", which makes up an estimated 50% of its staff.

These contractors do not receive the same benefits as Google's full-time employees, missing out on sick days and other "perks".

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