Internet search giant Google generated a lot of hits of its own Tuesday, as its top executive faced sharp questioning on Capitol Hill from Republicans complaining of liberal bias in its search engines and Democrats focused on Google’s role in spreading disinformation and clearing the path for adversaries such as Russia to meddle in the U.S. democratic process.
In highly anticipated testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Google CEO Sundar Pichai repeatedly pushed back against President Trump, who has called Google “rigged,” as well as other top Republicans who increasingly argue that the company — with an overwhelmingly left-leaning workforce — suppresses conservative news outlets and personalities in its searches.
“I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way,” Mr. Pichai said in his first appearance on Capitol Hill. “To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests.”
Mr. Pichai angered lawmakers in September when he declined to appear before a Senate panel exploring foreign efforts to manipulate American social media during elections. While Facebook and Twitter sent their CEOs, senators noted Mr. Pichai’s no-show by leaving an empty chair alongside the witnesses.
The more than three-hour House hearing Tuesday was vastly different with Republicans shining a harsh spotlight on Google’s search algorithms and allegations that the company suppresses right-wing viewpoints because of Silicon Valley’s liberal bias.
Although lawmakers at times displayed limited understanding of the arcana of social media and the fundamentals of web search engines, the lengthy grilling added to momentum that has been building in Congress for legislation to regulate Google and other leading social media platforms in the wake of Kremlin efforts to spread propaganda online during the 2016 presidential election campaign.
For Google, the bias issue has lingered, as have wider bipartisan worries across Capitol Hill that stricter privacy protections are needed for data that the big tech companies’ collect from their billions of users. Mr. Pichai faced multiple questions on Google’s expansion plans for China and whether the price of re-entering that market means cooperating with the ruling Communist Party to create a special search engine.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican who sits on the judiciary panel, warned Mr. Pichai that “a free world depends on a free internet” and noted that Google is responsible for 90 percent of all internet searches. He told Mr. Pichai that there was a “widening gap of distrust between tech companies and the American people.”
Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, criticized Google’s monopoly over search engines, cloud-based email and Android mobile operating system. Mr. Goodlatte mentioned a video from the presidential election showing Google employees distraught about Mr. Trump’s upset victory.
“This committee is very interested in what justifies filtering,” Mr. Goodlatte said about Google search parameters, “given the revelation that top executives at Google have discussed how the results of the 2016 elections do not comply with Google’s values.”
The most withering line of questioning was from Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, who raised privacy concerns by holding up his smartphone and asking Mr. Pichai whether his company could track his movements if he walked across the hearing room.
Mr. Poe lashed out at Mr. Pichai’s halting answer. “You make $100 million a year,” he said. “You should be able to answer that question. I’m shocked you don’t know. I think Google obviously does.”
Rep. Steve Cohen, Tennessee Democrat, at one point wondered how Mr. Pichai could appear multiple times on left-leaning cable network MSNBC but a Google search of his name linked to largely conservative websites.
While Mr. Pichai faced uncomfortable moments inside the hearing room, critics in the corridors outside were heckling him and chanting, “Google is evil.”
They were led by Alex Jones, founder of the conspiracy theory website Infowars, which has been banned from some Google platforms such as YouTube, and former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone, who also claimed to have been censored by the search engine.
On China, Mr. McCarthy raised concerns over reporting that Google intended to work again with the ruling Communist Party to create a search engine tailored to the government’s censoring guidelines. Mr. Pichai repeatedly tried to sidestep the question, saying Google had no firm plans to undertake such a project and would be “fully transparent” about the move if that changed.
But the intense questioning provided a few revelations about the China-tailored search program, code-named Butterfly.
“We have explored what search could look like if it were to be launched in a country like China. That’s what we explored,” Mr. Pichai said at one point. At another point, he said “over 100” engineers had been working on the project.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Pichai, an India-born computer engineer and management consultant, tried to get ahead of his congressional critics by insisting that Google never forgets its “American roots.”
“It’s no coincidence that a company dedicated to the free flow of information was founded right here in the U.S.,” he said. “As an American company, we cherish the values and freedoms that have allowed us to grow and serve so many users.”
Democrats, who will take control of the House and the Judiciary Committee in January, at times came to Google’s defense. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat in line to become the committee chairman next month, said the idea that Google and other tech companies display an anti-conservative bias was a “fantasy” driven by Republicans.
Mr. Nadler offered hints of what could be a new agenda for the committee when it comes under Democratic control. He blasted Republicans for their focus on bias as opposed to the Kremlin’s efforts to spread disinformation and fake news across social media during the 2016 presidential election.