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House Republicans Grill Google CEO Sundar Pichai Over Alleged Political Bias

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Photo of Google CEO Sundar Pichai (Drew Clark/Breakfast Media)

WASHINGTON, December 11, 2018 – The CEO of search engine Google came to Washington on Tuesday and politely rebutted all charges that the world’s largest search engine is biased against conservative viewpoints.

In the calm and controlled voice of an engineer, CEO Sundar Pichai said, “Our products are built without any bias,” responding to a question of the House Judiciary Committee Chairman.

“We don’t build partisan features,” he repeated later to another Republican member of the committee.

Indeed, Pichai had to contend with an almost-uninterrupted narrative – fed largely, but not completely, by members of the GOP – that Google’s search engine results were in some way systematically biased.

Moreover, as the head of one of the country’s leading information technology companies, Pichai was robustly challenged on issues ranging from the extent of Google’s surveillance-like data-collection to the existence of prototype search engine that returned restricted results – and is apparently designed to cater to the communist China market.

Pichai didn’t face as much overt hostility as was experienced by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg when he sat down for his grilling before the same committee after the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal earlier this year. But Pichai wasn’t welcomed very warmly, either.

On privacy, Pichai said that he, like Facebook CEO Zuckerberg, supported Congress considering data privacy legislation.

Does Google exhibit bias in its search engine results?

Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., set a confrontational tone, without being conspiratorial:

“While it is true that Google is not a government entity and so it does not have to comply with the First Amendment, the American people deserve to know what types of information they are not getting when they perform searches on the internet. The market works best when information about products and services is readily available, and so today – on behalf of this Committee and the American consumer – I hope to get answers from Mr. Pichai regarding who at Google makes the judgment calls on whether to filter or block objectionable content and what metrics Google uses to make those decisions.”

Pichai insisted that Google’s algorithms are designed to accurately reflect what people are talking about online at any given time. Google is not “the internet” so much as representing what is on the internet at any given time, he seemed to be saying.

“Any time you type in a keyword, we crawl copies of billions of web pages, and we take the keyword and match it against pages for relevance, freshness, popularity, how others are using the it, and we try to rank and find the best” pages for that particular keyword, he said.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., used this concept to explain why, when an individual conducts a search for the word “idiot” in Google, the image of Donald Trump comes up repeatedly.

Google doesn’t return these results because Google is making this commentary of the president, Lofgren said. Rather, Google is reflected what others internet users are saying.

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., made the same point when noting that search results of most of his fellow colleagues were not overtly imbalanced – with the exception of Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa (not a member of the Judiciary Committee) – but has recently made controversial statements about figures linked with white supremacy movements.

“If you are getting bad search results on Google, don’t blame Google, blame yourself,” Lieu said to his Republican colleagues.

“This is the fourth hearing in a series of ridiculous hearings [because] the First Amendment protects private individuals and corporations’ rights to freedom of speech.”

Republican representatives pile on against Google

Still, Republican after Republican had a story to tell about a gripe they had regarding Google results. Many lobbed in questions about Google’s privacy and market power.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, refused to believe that bias was not present in the curation of political content when more than 90 percent of the searches for Donald Trump produce negative stories on the president. He also referred to pro-Trump content being labelled, or “flagged,” as hate speech.

“This doesn’t happen by accident, but is baked into the algorithms,” said Smith.

Pichai disagreed, and referred to the company’s political neutrality in algorithm results as “sacrosanct.”

But Smith wasn’t buying it, and referred to the evidence of political bias on the Google platform as “irrefutable.”

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, contended that virtually every reference to a health care bill that he had introduced was “an attack on our bill.” He had to go to the third or fourth page of the search engine’s results to find one that was “remotely positive.”

Replied Pichai: “We use a methodology about what is being said about a topic at any given time.

“It is in our interest to make sure we reflect what is happening out there in the most effective method possible. Our algorithms have no sense of politics.”

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., criticized an apparent divergence in the rates that are charged for the keywords being used by Republican candidates versus Democratic candidates.

Pichai said that prices for advertising were determined on the basis of automatic auctions, and that that was “why I am confident that we don’t approach our work with political bias.”

Nonethless, Pichai committed to following up with Issa to looking at the reasons for the divergent pricing of keywords for Republican versus Democratic candidates.

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, pressed for details on the information collection capacities of an Android phone. Then, acknowledging that Google had a First Amendment right to present the search results it wanted, added: “I hope we don’t get to the point where government comes in and regulates what is biased, because [Google] is an independent and free company.”

Privacy and China also play a role in the hearing

Pichai was also criticized repeatedly – by representatives of both parties – for its sweeping data-collection practices, and for a reported prototype of a search engine for the Chinese market.

Pichai wiggled on the question of a Chinese search engine: “We have no plans to launch in China,” he said, adding, “Right now, we have no plans to launch search in China.”

Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Penn., finally got the most information out of him, when he acknowledged the existence of a prototype products for “what search would look like” in a country that require mandatory content filtering.

At one point, he said, more than 100 Google engineers were working on the project.

 

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Congress

Israel Denies Visas to Omar and Tlaib After Trump Says Allowing Them Would Be ‘Weak’

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WASHINGTON, August 15, 2019 — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday appeared to acquiesce to pressure from President Donald Trump to bar two Democratic lawmakers from visiting that country.

Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., had planned to visit the Israeli-controlled West Bank, which has been under Israeli control since 1967 and is home to a number of the latter’s relatives.

But those plans appeared to have gone awry after Netanyahu’s interior minister, Aryeh Deri, announced on Thursday that the pair would not be granted visas to enter the Israeli-controlled West Bank.

In a statement posted to his official Twitter account, Netanyahu said the actual decision to deny Omar and Tlaib admission had been made by Deri, and was necessitated by their status as “leading activists in promoting the legislation of boycotts against Israel in the American Congress.”

“No country in the world respects America and the American Congress more than the State of Israel,” he said.

“As a free and vibrant democracy, Israel is open to critics and criticism with one exception: Israeli law prohibits the entry into Israel of those who call for and work to impose boycotts on Israel, as do other democracies that prohibit the entry of people who seek to harm the country.”

While Israel’s law targeting supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has been in effect since 2017, it has never been enforced against American members of Congress.

But the Israeli government’s decision to do so appears to come at the explicit request of President Trump, who was reported last week to have told advisers that Israel should block their entry. Several of Trump’s top aides have close ties to Israeli leaders, including son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, whose family maintains a close friendship with Netanyahu.

Although it had been unclear in recent days whether the Israeli government would apply its anti-BDS law to visiting American lawmakers, there were early indications that Israel would allow Omar and Tlaib’s visit to go forward.

In a recent statement, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer said that Israel would allow Omar and Tlaib to enter out of respect for Israel’s strong relationship with the United States.

And even after reports emerged that Trump was sending signals that Israel should bar them from entering, it appeared that Israel’s government would heed the advice of several top Democratic lawmakers by allowing the visit to go forward.

But Democrats’ efforts were upended early Thursday after President Trump took to Twitter to encourage Israel to bar the two women.

“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit,” Trump tweeted, before adding — without evidence — that the two congresswomen “hate Israel & all Jewish people, [and] there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds.”

Trump also appeared to suggest that a decision by Israel to bar Omar and Tlaib from entering would help the Republican candidates who will run against them in 2020.

“Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!” He wrote.

Omar and Tlaib have become frequent targets of Trump’s often-racist attacks since they entered Congress in January of this year.

Last month, Trump tweeted that Omar, Tlaib, and two other congresswomen of color — and American citizens — should “go back” to “their countries” if they disagreed with his policies.

Members of Congress and Jewish groups largely denounced the decision to bar Omar and Tlaib as detrimental to the relationship between the two countries.

In a statement, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer called the decision “outrageous,” “wrong,” and “contrary to the statement and assurances to me by Israel’s ambassador to the United States that ‘out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any Member of Congress into Israel.’”

“That representation was not true,” Hoyer said, adding that he had urged Netanyahu to allow the trip to go forward during a Wednesday phone conversation.

Hoyer said he appreciated Israel’s willingness to allow Tlaib to visit her family in the West Bank on humanitarian grounds, but he “strongly oppose[s]” the “unwarranted and self-destructive” decision to block the visit she’d planned.

While White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham told BeltwayBreakfast that Trump’s tweet was not an attempt to advise or encourage any action by Israel, one of Tlaib’s fellow Michiganders — Rep. Justin Amash — appeared to directly link the President’s tweet and Israel’s decision.

“Israel should stand up to President Trump and allow our colleagues to visit,” Amash tweeted. “Nobody has to agree with their opinions, but it will inevitably harm U.S.-Israel relations if members of Congress are banned from the country.”

Also weighing in against the decision was former National Security Council spokesman Ned Price, who called Netanyahu’s acquiescence to President Trump “an affront to elected American lawmakers” and “a slap in the face to the US-Israeli alliance.”

“[Netanyahu] and President Trump together have inflicted great damage on the relationship that won’t be able to be repaired overnight,” Price said.

“There are any number of foreign governments, Israel among them, that have made a risky, short-term investment in President Trump. When the dust settles, I have every expectation they’ll realize that the short-term gains were illusory and the damage to the bilateral relationship will be long-lasting.”

American Jewish organizations also largely condemned the decision as bad for US-Israel relations.

“This reported decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu is dangerous, unacceptable and wrong,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said in a statement.

“The fact that President Trump has already tweeted out his own call for these representatives to be denied entry illustrates that this decision is motivated purely by politics and ideology — not by the interests of the State of Israel. It is an affront to Congress and the American people and does severe damage to the US-Israel relationship — and it must be reversed immediately.”

American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris said that Israel “did not choose wisely” by reversing its initial decision, which his organization had supported because it was made “out of respect for the fact that both are members of the U.S. Congress, and that Israel rightfully prides itself on being an open, democratic society.”

“While we fully respect Israel’s sovereign right to control entry into the country, a right that every nation employs, and while we are under no illusions about the implacably hostile views of Reps. Omar and Tlaib on Israel-related issues, we nonetheless believe that the costs in the U.S. of barring the entry of two members of Congress may prove even higher than the alternative,” Harris said.

The largest pro-Israel organization in the US, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee — better known as AIPAC — also weighed in against the decision on its’ Twitter account.

“We disagree with Reps. Omar and Tlaib’s support for the anti-Israel and anti-peace BDS movement, along with Rep. Tlaib’s calls for a one-state solution. We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand,” an AIPAC spokesperson tweeted.

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House Homeland Security Committee Issues Subpoena to the Owner of 8chan Internet Site

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WASHINGTON, August 14, 2019 — The Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Homeland Security Committee have issued a subpoena to compel testimony from the owner of 8chan, the controversial internet message board site which has played a role in at least three mass shootings this year.

On Wednesday, Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. and Ranking Member Mike Rogers, R-Ala announced that they had subpoenaed Jim Watkins, a Philippines-based American expatriate and entrepreneur.

The committee aims to force Watkins to discuss efforts to combat the violent extremists who’ve used his site to announce their violent attacks, and stated that his testimony would be “critical” to their oversight efforts.

“Today the Committee on Homeland Security issued a subpoena to Jim Watkins, the owner of the website 8chan,” Thompson and Rogers said in a statement.

“In recent years, violent extremist content has proliferated on both large and small social media platforms. At least three acts of deadly white supremacist extremist violence have been linked to 8chan in the last six months. We have questions on what is being done to counter this trend so we can be sure it is being properly addressed.”

The site has existed on the fringes of the internet since its founding in 2013, but has been thrust into the public consciousness by mass shooters in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso after they used it to publish racist manifestos explaining why they’d chosen to target crowds of Muslims and Hispanic-Americans, respectively.

In a video posted to YouTube on Sunday, Watkins said the site has been offline “voluntarily for the last week,” and would remain so until he had spoken with the Homeland Security Committee.

A committee spokesperson told Breakfast Media that committee staff members have been in communication with Watkins though a U.S.-based registered agent, though the spokesperson stressed the committee is not aware of Watkins’ current whereabouts.

“It’s too early to say whether he’ll comply,” the spokesperson said.

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Robert Mueller Speaks, and Confirms That President Trump Could Be Indicted Upon Leaving Office

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WASHINGTON, July 24, 2019 — Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday wasted no time in putting an end to President Trump’s claims that he’d been found not to have obstructed justice.

Asked by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler if his investigation had “found there was no obstruction and that had completely and totally exonerated” President Trump, Mueller refuted one of President Trump’s most frequent lies with just seven words.

“That is not what the report said,” Mueller said.

Under further questioning by Nadler, D-NY., Mueller confirmed that his report not only failed to exonerate President Trump, and that his investigation found “multiple acts by the president that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian interference and obstruction investigations.”

“The president was not exculpated for the acts he allegedly committed,” he said.

Mueller explained that the reason criminal charges against President Trump were not considered by his office was because of a Watergate-era legal opinion by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which states that indicting a sitting chief executive is unconstitutional.

When Nadler asked if Trump could be indicted for obstruction of justice after he leaves office, Mueller simply said: “Correct.”

But if Democrats were hoping that Mueller, who led the FBI through the turbulent years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, would give them detailed descriptions of the presidential conduct that his team found to be obstructive, they would be sorely disappointed.

A reticent figure under normal circumstances, Mueller took pains to confine his statements to one or two word answers, and only rarely took time to explain himself.

Still, one by one, Democrats on the committee walked Mueller through the actions Trump took to try and end the two-year investigation into whether he, or anyone associated with his campaign, had coordinated with the Russian efforts to secure aid his candidacy.

While Mueller kept his answers brief, he did, on occasion break some new ground.
Under questioning from Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., Mueller went further than expected by acknowledging that were it not for the OLC opinion barring the indictment of a sitting president, he would have indicted Trump on charges of obstruction of justice.

“The reason…that you did not indict Donald Trump is because of the OLC opinion stating that you cannot indict a sitting president, correct?” Lieu asked.

“That is correct,” Mueller said, though during his opening statement before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, he later explained that he had meant to say that he hadn’t considered whether to do so because of the same OLC opinion.

When Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., accused Mueller of simply “[throwing] a bunch of stuff against the wall to see what would stick” against Trump, he immediately disputed that characterization of events.

“What we did is provide to the attorney general…our understanding of the case, those cases that were brought those cases or declined, and the one case where the president cannot be charged with a crime.”

But when Buck asked whether Trump could be charged with obstruction of justice after his term as president expires, Mueller answered in the affirmative.

Possibly the only subject on which Mueller became particularly animated was that of his team of prosecutors, many of whom Republican committee members attempted to cast as “angry Democrats” with myriad conflicts of interest that should have kept them from being able to investigate Trump or his campaign.

When Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., began asking Mueller about the political leanings of some of the attorneys he hired, Mueller responded by defending his colleagues.

“We strove to hire those individuals that could do the job,” he said.

I have been in this business for almost 25 years and in those 25 years, I have not had occasion once to ask somebody about their political affiliation,” he continued. “It is not done.”

“What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity.”

Most of the Democrats who questioned Mueller concluded their allowed time with a declaration that the president must be held accountable for his actions, and often thanked Mueller for his work in highlighting what they called Trump’s assaults on the rule of law.

But in a statement emailed to reporters shortly after the hearing’s conclusion, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham had a different view.

“The last three hours have been an epic embarrassment for the Democrats,” Grisham said. “Expect more of the same in the second half.”

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