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Google Couldn’t Avoid the Legislators Anymore, And Didn’t Have All The Answers Either

(Representative image: AP)

(Representative image: AP)

The Senate Commerce Committee questioned Google about the policies it has in place to protect user data and Project Dragonfly. It did not have the answers. Apple, Amazon and Twitter were also present.

After having avoided the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing earlier this month, Google was finally questioned by the Senate Commerce Committee. And when it was asked tough questions about Project Dragonfly, it clearly seemed to have come up short. The Senate Commerce Committee hearing was attended by Google, Amazon, Apple, Twitter, Charter Communications and AT&T, and started out as a discussion on the privacy legislation that is being discussed in the US.

Google’s chief privacy officer, Keith Enrigh faced a barrage of questions, as did AT&T’s chief lawyer Len Cali, Amazon’s chief lawyer Andrew DeVore, Charter’s policy chief Rachel Welch, Guy Tribble, Vice President of Software Technology at Apple and Damian Kieran, Global Data Protection Officer and Associate Legal Director, Twitter, Inc.

The discussions around data privacy and protection have become even louder ever since the European Union implemented its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) this summer, which meant any company that operated in Europe had to revisit and update their data privacy policies to comply with the new regulations of data collection, safeguarding, sharing and consent norms—and severe penalties for violations.

Incidentally, the wheels are already in motion in the US, with the state of California announcing that in the year 2020, the new privacy rule will kick in, which will allow consumers the right to know what tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter and Google are collecting from them. Tech companies, including the ones at the hearing, instead want a federal law, instead of a gamut of state laws, which they believe is unworkable. “required us to divert significant resources to administrative tasks and away from invention,” said Amazon’s DeVore. The consumers will be able to question companies as to why the data that is being collected is being collected in the first place, how they are using it and which internal or external parties they are sharing it with. Consumers will then have the complete option to bar tech companies from sharing or selling any of the data they have collected about the users themselves.

“We acknowledge that we have made mistakes in the past, from which we have learned, and improved our robust privacy program,” Keith Enright, Google’s chief privacy officer, said in his opening statement, in what was a rare admittance on Google’s part.

The problem for the Silicon Valley is that the legislators think consumers don’t have enough data privacy and not enough safeguards for their data. “Consumers deserve clear answers and standards on data privacy protection,” says Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

The focus soon shifted to Google, and the reports that it is working on a heavily censored search engine for China. It is dubbed as Project Dragonfly. “I will say that my understanding is that we are not, in fact, close to launching a search product in China, and whether we would or could at some point in the future remains unclear. If we were, in fact, to finalize a plan to launch a search product in China, my team would be actively engaged," he said. While Enrigh tried to not link Dragonfly with the search engine for China, he did mention when pressed by Sen Ted Cruz (Republican – Texas), “I am not clear on the contours of what is in scope or out of scope for that project.” Important to note that not once did Google deny the existence of the project, but Enrigh instead seemed to be denying knowledge about it. Two very different things, whichever way you look at it.

Before the hearing, Jack Poulson, a former Google research scientist had sent a letter to the committee’s chairman, Sen. John Thune, encouraging the committee to focus the questioning on Project Dragonfly. In the letter, first reported by The Intercept, Poulson says Google’s attempts at making a search engine for China is “a catastrophic failure of the internal privacy review process, which one of the reviewers characterized as actively subverted,” and described it as a “pattern of unethical and unaccountable decision making from company leadership.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee hearing earlier this month saw Facebook and Twitter try to put a brave front when asked tough questions about how they plan to identify, remove and restrict content from their platforms which can be classified as hate speech, counter data privacy breaches and online efforts by various groups to alter the political scenario of another country.

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