Dec 12, 2018

Google CEO: Big Tech scrutiny is "here to stay"

Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The sudden scrutiny and skepticism hitting Google and other Big Tech companies is "here to stay," Google CEO Sundar Pichai told Axios Tuesday after he testified for more than three hours on Capitol Hill.

Why it matters: Pichai has been the least public of the top tech CEOs, and he and Google are beginning an effort to engage more consistently and directly with policymakers

“Tech has a lot of impact and a lot of consequences. And so, I think it’s rightful to be more reflective of how technology is developed. And I think the stakes are higher, the technology is getting more powerful, with the technologies like AI coming up, too. So, I think it’s here to stay, and it’s a good thing, right? I think you want to be thoughtful about how you develop powerful technologies. And I think it’s important that more people than engineers are able to weigh in on these things.”
— Google CEO Sundar Pichai

Like Apple CEO Tim Cook in an "Axios on HBO" interview, Pichai made it clear that tech accepts that new regulation is inevitable and will now try to work with Washington to get the balance right.

Pichai spoke with Axios after lawmakers grilled him on perceived search bias and consumer data abuses. In the interview, Pichai said he recognized that more conversations need to happen between Mountain View and Washington. “There needs to be deeper, different engagement than what happens today,” he said.

  • Pichai said that he views these sorts of cultural backlashes as moving in cycles, so Big Tech’s troubles may abate one day. Meanwhile, he said he hopes that “we don’t lose that sense of optimism we have about technology.”
  • “But I think a broader scrutiny of technology at a high level, I think, is actually important,” he said. “I personally have always felt so.”

Pichai reiterated Google’s support for “thoughtful” privacy regulation and said the company is exploring instances in which certain user settings would default away from collecting the data that fuels the company’s ad-targeting machine. Instead, consumers would have to opt in to that data collection in some instances.

  • “I think privacy is an area where you have constantly evolving user expectations,” he said. “I think, as a company, we have grown a lot. … I think people may legitimately have questions saying, ‘I do want a different construct.’”
  • He declined to say which default settings the company might change. (He said the team might say to him: "Sundar, that was a stupid idea.") But he said that location data is one area it is working to simplify settings for users. “We understand location is in the fabric of everything,” he said.
  • The catch: Google’s data trove is what makes its tools so useful for consumers. Location data, for instance, is how Google knows what language to translate when you travel to another country. When Google gets it wrong, “people are very upset at us,” he said. “We are trying to respond to user needs.”

Concerns about AI's power and potentially negative consequences are legitimate, he said. Still, the development of powerful technologies such as AI is inevitable, and it’s essential to keep up with the progress being made in these areas by bad actors.

  • For example, he said, the only way to thwart fake videos is to develop technology advanced enough to sniff them out. “The worst thing you can do is to stop progress on AI [while] someone else is making progress on manipulation of AI,” he said.

What's next: He also pointed to the important role large tech companies now play in the R&D of emerging technology, particularly AI and quantum computing, as federal spending falls.

  • When asked if Google would be broken up, he cited investment in emerging technologies as a benefit of bigness. “There are some advantages of big companies, which is we do invest for the long term in foundational technologies,” he said.

Go deeper: Slowing economy could increase pressure on Big Tech

Go deeper

Latin America surpasses U.S. and Europe in new daily coronavirus cases

The Intensive Care Unit treating coronavirus patients in the Gilberto Novaes Hospital in Manaus, Brazil, on Wednesday. Photo: Michael Dantas/AFP via Getty Images

Latin America has overtaken the U.S. and Europe for the largest number of new daily novel coronavirus cases this week, per Reuters.

Why it matters: The outbreak in Latin America, and Brazil in particular, significantly contributed to global infection numbers surpassing 5 million early on Thursday. The surge in cases indicates a shift in the spread of COVID-19 from the original epicenter of China to Europe and the U.S.

World coronavirus updates: Global cases surpass 5 million

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

The number of novel coronavirus cases has just surpassed 5 million, Johns Hopkins data shows.

By the numbers: COVID-19 has killed more than 328,000 people. 5,000,038 people have tested positive for the virus as of early Thursday. Over 1.8 million have recovered from the virus. The U.S. has reported the most cases (over 1.5 million from 12.6 million tests).

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 1:30 a.m. ET: 4,999,981 — Total deaths: 328,172 — Total recoveries — 1,899,285Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 1:30 a.m. ET: 1,551,853 — Total deaths: 93,439 — Total recoveries: 294,312 — Total tested: 12,647,791Map.
  3. Federal response: Trump eases up on threat to withhold funding to Michigan over mail-in ballots, says he plans to stop taking hydroxychloroquine "in a day or two"CDC releases detailed 60-page roadmap on reopening.
  4. World: Confirmed deaths in Brazil's largest city spike by over 400%The pandemic is a force for deglobalizationGlobal cases spike over 24 hours.
  5. Business: Nearly half of U.S. households have lost income since mid-March.
  6. Congress: GOP senator says one-week recess is "unfathomable" before passing next coronavirus bill.
  7. Education: In-person graduation ceremonies are tempting some schools.
  8. What should I do? Hydroxychloroquine questions answeredTraveling, asthma, dishes, disinfectants and being contagiousMasks, lending books and self-isolatingExercise, laundry, what counts as soap — Pets, moving and personal healthAnswers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingHow to minimize your risk.
  9. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it, the right mask to wear.

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Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy