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Utah Sen. Mike Lee goes after Google, says its search function is biased against conservatives

Salt Lake Tribune logo Salt Lake Tribune 8/10/2020 Lee Davidson
Mike Lee wearing a suit and tie: (Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Sen. Mike Lee answers questions at a town hall in Draper on Feb. 19, 2020. © Trent Nelson (Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Sen. Mike Lee answers questions at a town hall in Draper on Feb. 19, 2020.

Sen. Mike Lee says Google’s CEO may have lied to Congress by asserting that its search engine designs are nonpartisan, and that they do not put conservatives at a disadvantage.

“There are numerous examples to support that the contrary is happening,” Lee and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., wrote last week to Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive officer. They demanded that he answer several of their questions and “correct the record if necessary” from his recent testimony to the House Judiciary Committee.

“We do not believe that Google is acting with full transparency nor in a politically neutral manner,” the senators wrote, despite assertions by Pichai and Google that they are.

The senators gave several instances of what they are saying is evidence that Google gives a political tilt to its searches, which may hurt conservatives in upcoming elections.

“Conservative outlets have continued to face diminished search results on Google. Breitbart News’ editor-in-chief Alex Marlow said during an interview last week that Google was limiting exposure of Breitbart News in Google searches, so much so that Breitbart’s visibility index is down 99.7% since 2016 and overall their Google traffic is down nearly two-thirds,” they wrote.

“Just two weeks ago, users were unable to access a number of websites from Google search, many of which were conservative websites such as Breitbart, the Drudge Report, the Bongino Report and the National Pulse,” they wrote. “Your company reported it was a ‘bug’ or ‘glitch’ and had been fixed.”

But the senators questioned if it was a sign that the company, as some former employees have claimed, uses blacklists to target some conservative groups.

The two senators also noted that a report says biases within Google’s search function could have influenced “millions of undecided voters to vote for Hillary Clinton” in 2016 (However, a New York Times look at a similar claim by Trump said it lacked evidence, and said the study author says he looked at what could happen if Google manipulated results — but did not say it actually did).

Lee and Johnson wrote that if Google is manipulating searches “to surreptitiously influence election results, that would be a serious violation of the public trust.” So they asked the company to answer a series of questions.

Among those is if Google categorically denies that no one there is working on search manipulation for the upcoming general election. If so, they ask to know what safeguards Google has to ensure that no employees go rogue and insert such manipulation on their own.

It also asks if Google uses any blacklists, and what their intent is. They also ask if Google uses interactive computing systems designed to changes people’s attitudes and behaviors, called “persuasive technology.”

The letter comes after Lee last month dangled the possibility of breaking up what he says are monopolies by social media companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook for the way he says they treat conservatives like Trump.

“I view your heavy-handed censorship as a sign of exactly the sort of degraded quality one expects from a monopolist,” Lee wrote in a letter to leaders of the companies.

That came after Lee — chairman of the Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, which oversees legislation about monopolies — announced he will hold a hearing Sept. 15 on whether Google and other tech giants are “stacking the deck” in online advertising.

Lee asked the leaders of Google, Facebook, Twitter and Squarespace to answer numerous questions about how and why they moderate comments online — and he attacked what he says is their warping of public debate by unfairly silencing many conservatives.

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