All posts in “Sundar Pichai”

Facebook talked privacy, Google actually built it

Mark Zuckerberg: “The future is private”. Sundar Pichai: ~The present is private~. While both CEO’s made protecting user data a central theme of their conference keynotes this month, Facebook’s product updates were mostly vague vaporware while Google’s were either ready to ship or ready to demo. The contrast highlights the divergence in strategy between the two tech giants.

For Facebook, privacy is a talking point meant to boost confidence in sharing, deter regulators, and repair its battered image. For Google, privacy is functional, going hand-in-hand with on-device data processing to make features faster and more widely accessible.

Everyone wants tech to be more private, but we must discern between promises and delivery. Like “mobile”, “on-demand”, “AI”, and “blockchain” before it, “privacy” can’t be taken at face value. We deserve improvements to the core of how our software and hardware work, not cosmetic add-ons and instantiations no one is asking for.

AMY OSBORNE/AFP/Getty Images

At Facebook’s F8 last week, we heard from Zuckerberg about how “Privacy gives us the freedom to be ourselves” and he reiterated how that would happen through ephemerality and secure data storage. He said Messenger and Instagram Direct will become encrypted…eventually…which Zuckerberg had already announced in January and detailed in March. We didn’t get the Clear History feature that Zuckerberg made the privacy centerpiece of his 2018 conference, or anything about the Data Transfer Project that’s been silent for the 10 months since it’s reveal.

What users did get was a clumsy joke from Zuckerberg about how “I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we’re serious about this. I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now to put it lightly. But I’m committed to doing this well.” No one laughed. At least he admitted that “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

But it shouldn’t have to. Facebook made its first massive privacy mistake in 2007 with Beacon, which quietly relayed your off-site ecommerce and web activity to your friends. It’s had 12 years, a deal with the FTC promising to improve, countless screwups and apologies, the democracy-shaking Cambridge Analytica scandal, and hours of being grilled by congress to get serious about the problem. That makes it clear that if “the future is private”, then the past wasn’t. Facebook is too late here to receive the benefit of the doubt.

At Google’s I/O, we saw demos from Pichai showing how “our work on privacy and security is never done. And we want to do more to stay ahead of constantly evolving user expectations.” Instead of waiting to fall so far behind that users demand more privacy, Google has been steadily working on it for the past decade since it introduced Chrome incognito mode. It’s changed directions away from using Gmail content to target ads and allowing any developer to request access to your email, though there are plenty of sins to atone for. Now when the company is hit with scandals, it’s typically over its frightening efficiency as with its cancelled Project Maven AI military tech, not its creepiness.

Google made more progress on privacy in low-key updates in the runup to I/O than Facebook did on stage. In the past month it launched the ability to use your Android device as a physical security key, and a new auto-delete feature rolling out in the coming weeks that erases your web and app activity after 3 or 18 months. Then in its keynote today, it published “privacy commitments” for Made By Google products like Nest detailing exactly how they use your data and your control over that. For example, the new Nest Home Max does all its Face Match processing on device so facial recognition data isn’t sent to Google. Failing to note there’s a microphone in its Nest security alarm did cause an uproar in February, but the company has already course-corrected

That concept of on-device processing is a hallmark of the new Android 10 Q operating system. Opening in beta to developers today, it comes with almost 50 new security and privacy features like TLS 1.3 support and Mac address randomization. Google Assistant will now be better protected, Pichai told a cheering crowd. “Further advances in deep learning have allowed us to combine and shrink the 100 gigabyte models down to half a gigabyte — small enough to bring it onto mobile devices.” This makes Assistant not only more private, but fast enough that it’s quicker to navigate your phone by voice than touch. Here, privacy and utility intertwine.

The result is that Google can listen to video chats and caption them for you in real-time, transcribe in-person conversations, or relay aloud your typed responses to a phone call without transmitting audio data to the cloud. That could be a huge help if you’re hearing or vision impaired, or just have your hands full. A lot of the new Assistant features coming to Google Pixel phones this year will even work in Airplane mode. Pichai says that “Gboard is already using federated learning to improve next word prediction, as well as emoji prediction across 10s of millions of devices” by using on-phone processing so only improvements to Google’s AI are sent to the company, not what you typed.

Google’s senior director of Android Stephanie Cuthbertson hammered the idea home, noting that “On device machine learning powers everything from these incredible breakthroughs like Live Captions to helpful everyday features like Smart Reply. And it does this with no user input ever leaving the phone, all of which protects user privacy.” Apple pioneered much of the on-device processing, and many Google features still rely on cloud computing, but it’s swiftly progressing.

When Google does make privacy announcements about things that aren’t about to ship, they’re significant and will be worth the wait. Chrome will implement anti-fingerprinting tech and change cookies to be more private so only the site that created them can use them. And Incognito Mode will soon come to the Google Maps and Search apps.

Pichai didn’t have to rely on grand proclamations, cringey jokes, or imaginary product changes to get his message across. Privacy isn’t just a means to an end for Google. It’s not a PR strategy. And it’s not some theoretical part of tomorrow like it is for Zuckerberg and Facebook. It’s now a natural part of building user-first technology…after 20 years of more cavalier attitudes towards data. That new approach is why the company dedicated to organizing the world’s information has been getting so little backlash lately.

With privacy, it’s all about show, don’t tell.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai totally stans ‘thank u, next’

"Thank you, next!"
“Thank you, next!”

Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images / Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Hearing Google CEO Sundar Pichai mention pop star Ariana Grande’s smash hit during an investor earnings call was endlessly amusing.

While talking up YouTube’s success Monday, Pichai included the detail that Grande’s “thank u, next” music video broke records, with more than 50 million views within 24 hours of premiering on the Google-owned video streaming site last November.

During the dry, formal phone call with investors, listeners were caught off guard hearing the CEO drop the artist’s full name and slang-tastic song title after listing revenue numbers and percentage gains.

We weren’t the only ones amused by the juxtaposition.

It was a subtle moment of levity during the cut-and-dry earnings call which discussed Google parent company Alphabet’s more than $31 billion in earnings.

We can totally see Pichai rocking out and we’re so f*cking grateful.  

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Facebook’s got 99 problems but Trump’s latest “bias” tweet ain’t one

By any measure Facebook hasn’t had the best of years in 2018.

But while toxic problems keep piling up and, well, raining acidly down on the social networking giant — from election interference, to fake accounts, faulty metrics, security flaws, ethics failuresprivacy outrages and much more besides — the silver lining of having a core business now widely perceived as hostile to democratic processes and civilized sentiment, and the tool of choice for shitposters agitating for hate and societal division, well, everywhere in the world, is that Facebook has frankly far more important things to worry about than the latest anti-tech-industry salvo from President Trump.

In an early morning tweet today, Trump (again) attacked what he dubbed anti-conservative “bias” in the digital social sphere — hitting out at not just Facebook but tech’s holy trinity of social giants, with a claim that “Facebook, Twitter and Google are so biased towards the Dems it is ridiculous!”

Time was when Facebook was so sensitive to accusations of internal anti-conservative bias that it fired a bunch of journalists it had contracted and replaced them with algorithms — which almost immediately pumped up a bunch of fake news. RIP irony.

Not today, though.

When asked if it had a response to Trump’s accusation of bias a Facebook spokesperson told us: “We don’t have anything to add here.”

The brevity and alacrity of the response suggested the spokesperson had a really cheerful expression on their face when they typed it.

The relief of Facebook not having to give a shit this time was kinda palpable, even in pixel form.

It was also a far cry from the screeds the company routinely dispenses these days to try to muffle journalistic — and indeed political — enquiry.

Trump evidently doesn’t factor ‘bigly’ on Facebook’s oversubscribed risk-list.

Even though Facebook was the first name on the president’s (non-alphabetical) tech giant hit-list.

Still, Twitter appeared to have irked Trump more, as his tweet singled out the short-form platform — with an accusation that Twitter has made it “much more difficult for people to join [sic] @realDonaldTrump”. (We think by “join” he means follow. But we’re speculating wildly.)

This is perhaps why Twitter felt moved to provide a response to the claim of bias, albeit also without wasting a lot of words.

Here’s its statement:

Our focus is on the health of the service, and that includes work to remove fake accounts to prevent malicious behavior. Many prominent accounts have seen follower counts drop, but the result is higher confidence that the followers they have are real, engaged people.

Presumably the president failed to read our report, from July, when we trailed Twitter’s forthcoming spam purge, warning it would result in users with lots of followers taking a noticeable hit in the coming days. In a word: Sad.

Of course we also asked Google for a response to Trump’s bias claim. But just got radio silence.

In similar “bias” tweets from August the company got a bigger Trump-lashing. And in a response statement then it told us: “We never rank search results to manipulate political sentiment.”

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has also just had to sit through some three hours of questions from Republicans in Congress on this very theme.

So the company probably feels it’s exhausted the political bias canard.

Even while, as the claims drone on and on, it might truly come to understand what it feels like to be stuck inside a filter bubble.

In any case there are far more pressing things to accuse Google’s algorithms of than being ‘anti-Trump’.

So it’s just as well it didn’t waste time on another presidential sideshow intended to distract from problems of Trump’s own making.

At the Google hearing, Congress proves they still have no idea how the internet works

Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies during Tuesday's House Judiciary Committee hearing.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies during Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing.

Image: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s long-awaited Congressional hearing took place on Tuesday.

Pichai testified before Congress on Google+ data breaches, the controversial Chinese-censorship friendly search product, and perceived anti-conservative bias. But, there was one more pressing concern that took center stage to those watching the hearing: Several members of Congress, at least on the House Judiciary Committee, have no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to technology.

The main topic of the hearing — anti-conservative bias within Google’s search engine — really puts how little Congress understands into perspective. Early on in the hearing, Rep. Lamar Smith claimed as fact that 96 percent of Google search results come from liberal sources. Besides being proven false with a simple search of your own, Google’s search algorithm bases search rankings on attributes such as backlinks and domain authority. Partisanship of the news outlet does not come into play. Smith asserted that he believe the results are being manipulated, regardless of being told otherwise.

Rep. Steve Chabot brought us one of the most unfortunate self-owns of the hearing while discussing Google search and anti-conservative bias. Bringing up his own personal experience, Chabot questioned Pichai on why Google returned so much negative criticism on Republicans’ bill to repeal and replace Obamacare last year. Unaware of the implication that so many outlets reported on the bill in this way simply because, maybe, it was just bad, Chabot went on to bring up a similar experience with the GOP tax plan.

When Iowa Rep. Steve King demanded to know why a nasty image of the Congressman would appear on his granddaughter’s phone while she was playing a game, Pichai had to point out that Google doesn’t make the iPhone. King’s response? It could have been an Android!

But, not to be outdone by his peers, the most cringeworthy moment of the entire hearing has to go to Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert. The Republican Congressman was upset with the fact that Google shows Wikipedia in its search results. Gohmert proceeded to throw himself under the bus in a bizarre moment where he blamed the free online encyclopedia for removing edits his staff makes to his own Wikipedia page. Remember that this is being said at a hearing on political bias on the internet!

It should be no surprise that a majority of our elected officials aren’t the most tech-savvy. But, while one can argue that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are only around a decade old, Google search has been a part of our internet lives for over 20 years.

There are certainly many concerns and critiques to be had over algorithms and data collection when it comes to Google and its products like Google Search and Google Ads. Sadly, not much time was spent on this substance at Tuesday’s hearing. Google-owned YouTube, the second most trafficked website in the world after Google, was barely addressed at the hearing tool. 

Perhaps these important topics will be better addressed at Pichai’s next Congressional hearing. Members of the incoming freshman class of Congress next year are younger and, seemingly, more tech savvy. Maybe they can even invite YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki to that hearing too.

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Google CEO admits company must better address the spread of conspiracy theories on YouTube

Google CEO Sundar Pichai admitted today that YouTube needs to do better in dealing with conspiracy content on its site that can lead to real world violence. During his testimony on Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee, the exec was questioned on how YouTube handles extremist content which promote conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and, more recently, a Hillary Clinton-focused conspiracy theory dubbed Frazzledrip.

According to an article in Monday’s The Washington Post, Frazzledrip is a variation on Pizzagate that began spreading on YouTube this spring.

In a bizarre series of questions, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) asked Pichai if he knew what Frazzledrip was.

Pichai replied that he was “not aware of the specifics about it.”

Raskin went on to explain that the recommendation engine on YouTube has been suggesting videos that claim politicians, celebrities and other leading figures were “sexually abusing and consuming the remains of children, often in satanic rituals.” He said these new conspiracist claims were echoing the discredited Pizzagate conspiracy, which two years ago led to a man firing shots into a Washington D.C. pizzeria, in search of the children he believed were held as sex slaves by Democratic Party leaders.

He also explained the new Frazzledrip theory in more detail, which he read about in The Washington Post’s report about the still rampant hateful conspiracies being hosted by YouTube. This newer conspiracy claims that Hillary Clinton and longtime aide Huma Abedin sexually assaulted a girl and drank her blood.

The Post said some of the video clips were removed after first appearing in April and had been debunked, but its review of the matter found dozens of videos where the claims were still being discussed. Combined, these videos had been viewed millions of times over the past eight months. In addition, the investigation found that YouTube’s search box would highlight these videos when people typed in terms like “HRC video” or “Frazzle.”

YouTube’s policy doesn’t prevent people from uploading falsehoods, The Post’s report noted.

Raskin asked Pichai about this type of extremist propaganda.

“What is your company policy on that? And are you trying to deal with it?,” he questioned.

Pichai admitted, essentially, that YouTube needed to do better.

“We are constantly undertaking efforts to deal with misinformation. We have clearly stated policies and we have made lots of progress in many of the areas where over the past year – so, for example, in areas like terrorism, child safety, and so on,” said Pichai. “We are looking to do more,” he said.

In terms of the Frazzledrip theory, he said it was more of a recent happening.

“But I’m committed to following up on it and making sure we are evaluating these against our policies,” the CEO promised.

The issue with videos like Frazzledrip is that YouTube’s current policies don’t fully encompass how to handle extremist propaganda. Instead, as The Post also said, its policies focus on videos with hateful, graphic and violent content directed at minorities and other protected groups. Meanwhile, it seeks to allow freedom of speech to others who upload content to its site, despite the disinformation they may spread or their potential to lead to violence.

The balance between free speech and content policies is a delicate matter – and an important one, given YouTube’s power to influence dangerous individuals. In addition to the Pizzagate shooter, the mass shooter who killed 11 people at the Pittsburgh synagogue in October had been watching neo-Nazi propaganda on YouTube, the Post’s report pointed out, in another example.

Asked what YouTube was doing about all this, Pichai didn’t offer specifics.

The CEO instead admitted that YouTube struggles with evaluating videos individually because of the volume of content it sees.

“We do get around 400 hours of video every minute. But it’s our responsibility, I think, to make sure YouTube is a platform for freedom of expression, but it’s responsible and contributes positively to society,” Pichai said. He added that its policies allow it take down videos that “insight harm or hatred or violence.” But conspiracy videos don’t always directly insight violence – they just radicalize individuals, who then sometimes act out violently, as a result.

“It’s an area we acknowledge there’s more work to be done, and we’ll definitely continue doing that,” Pichai said. “But I want to acknowledge there is more work to be done. With our growth comes more responsibility. And we are committed to doing better as we invest more in this area,” he said.