“Why does a Google image search for the word ‘idiot’ throw up images for President Donald Trump?” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California, asked Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Tuesday. This was just one of the few ‘googly’ questions that Pichai faced from the House Judiciary Committee in the US Senate.
So why does it? It’s a phenomenon called "Google bombing", which results in people gaming a certain keyword and linking it to sites with that result. In this case, US President Donald Trump.
This is what Google CEO Sundar Pichai had to say to the query:
"We take the keyword and match it against their pages and rank them based on over 200 signals. Things like relevance, freshness, popularity, how other people are using it. Based on that, at any given time, we try to rank and find the best search results for that query." - Sundar Pichai, CEO, Google
Sundar Pichai was answering the US Senate in a three-and-a-half hour session, facing queries about political bias, how it operates and also about data privacy of its users. A few months ago Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg faced a similar grilling, as did Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.
Pichai also faced a few other bizarre questions from US Senators, some of whom clearly don’t quite have a grip on how Google’s technology operates.
Sample this question from Iowa congressman (Republican) Steve King. The US congressman asked Google CEO Sundar Pichai, why a notification popped up on his seven-year-old grand-daughter’s iPhone showing a picture of her grandfather (King) before an election, with inappropriate language around it.
To which, Pichai had to explain that the “iPhone is made by a different company,” drawing peals of laughter from the democrat’s bench.
Another googly that came Pichai’s way was about Google’s location tracking services. Republican Ted Poe wanted to know if Google to track where he was sitting through his iPhone!
Poe says: “If I stand up from where I’m sitting and if I walk over to the corner, does someone in Google know that I have moved that distance?”
Pichai begins to explain that’s not how location tracking works, when the senator interrupts him.
"“Look, it’s not a tough question! You make $100 million a year. You can tell me whether or not if I go to the corner of the room, somebody at Google knows it! Does Google know, through this phone, that I am moving over there and sitting next to Mr. Johnson?”" - Republican Ted Poe, Texas
For the record, that’s not how Google’s location tracking works, although at most times it is fairly accurate down to 5 metres in open spaces, depending on the satellite lock the phone gets.
Pichai’s reply was a simple: “I won’t be able to answer that without looking at the iPhone.”
Clearly, the US senate needs a little better grip on technology.
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