During his three and a half hours in the Congressional hot seat earlier last week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai managed to play it cool.
He was well-rehearsed and responded to questions evenly, with patience and without the provocativeness or peculiarities which were characteristic of previous Google CEOs Eric Schmidt or Larry Page. Still, the hearing disappointed many viewers, who felt like it was a missed opportunity to press Pichai to explain more directly how the company plans to protect users’ privacy or reckon with its societal impact.
As Pichai dodged pointed questions or provided evasive answers, the spectacle felt emblematic of his and the company’s tough year. Google faced numerous high-profile public controversies and failures in 2018, and its responses have often felt similarly lackluster or unclear.
Yet as Pichai skated by in Congress, Google, too, has dodged arrows overall thanks to the more intense scrutiny that Facebook received for its own truly disastrous year.
A long, messy laundry list of issues
Google’s year featured a long, messy list of both internal and external calamities. Frequently, the company’s responses were inconclusive or unsubstantial.
YouTube. Let’s start last winter with its video platform, YouTube. It promoted conspiracies and inappropriate content in its trending section and was described as “one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century” for its abundance of divisive or misleading content. The company has made strides to curb problematic content, but as Pichai admitted, there’s “more work to be done.”
Maven. Then in the spring, Gizmodo broke the news that Google was working with the Pentagon to help it analyze drone footage, which prompted more than 3,000 employees to sign a letter of protest. The company ultimately dropped the so-called Project Maven, which appeased employees but also ruffled feathers in Washington. The resulting list of artificial intelligence ethics were also panned as milquetoast.
Diversity. At Alphabet’s shareholder meeting in June, a group of Google employees showed up to present a proposal from Zevin Asset Management to tie Alphabet’s executive compensation to diversity metrics in employee recruiting and retention. They said that Google’s response to HR issues had been inadequate. Meanwhile, over the course of the year the company was hit with a spate of opposing lawsuits, which argue that it is either not doing enough or going too far in its push for diversity.