SAN FRANCISCO — Google employees debated ways to alter search results to direct users to pro-immigration organizations and to contact lawmakers and government agencies after President Donald Trump’s immigration travel ban against predominantly Muslim countries.
That’s according to internal company emails obtained by the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper reported that employees in January 2017 wanted to counter what they saw as “islamophobic, algorithmically biased results from search terms ‘Islam’, ‘Muslim’, ’Iran’, etc.” and “prejudiced, algorithmically biased search results from search terms `Mexico’, `Hispanic’, `Latino’, etc.”
Google says none of the ideas were implemented.
“Google has never manipulated its search results or modified any of its products to promote a particular political ideology — not in the current campaign season, not during the 2016 election, and not in the aftermath of President Trump’s executive order on immigration,” the company said in a statement to USA TODAY.
Google has a corporate culture where staffers are encouraged to express themselves freely but periodically has faced accusations that the political views of its staff, which slant liberal, shape its influential search engine. In this case, a group of employees brainstormed ways to change the online debate on immigration in emails on Jan. 29, two days after Trump first signed the executive order.
One executive cautioned those taking part in the discussion, according to the Wall Street Journal. “This is a highly political issue, so we need to remain fair and balanced and present facts,” the executive wrote. “Very much in favor of Google stepping up, but just have a few questions on this,” including “how partisan we want to be on this,” a public affairs executive wrote. Another company official chimed in: “We’re absolutely in…Anything you need,” the Journal reported.
No action was taken, Google says. The emails were later posted in an online group and then leaked.
“Our processes and policies would not have allowed for any manipulation of search results to promote political ideologies,” the company said.
The revelation that Google employees discussed changing search results comes after Breitbart News released a video of a 2016 all-hands meeting at Google in which senior executives expressed dismay at Trump’s election win. The leaked video added fuel to charges leveled by Trump and some on the political right that Google is biased against conservatives.
Google’s corporate position on immigration has been public and consistent. Google’s Sundar Pichai was one of a number of chief executives who spoke out after Trump’s travel ban.
“It’s painful to see the personal cost of this executive order on our colleagues,” Pichai said at the time. “We’ve always made our view on immigration issues known publicly and will continue to do so.”
Google then joined with other companies to oppose the travel ban in amicus briefs. It also created a $4 million fund to support those working with immigrants and refugees.
In January 2017, thousands of Google employees staged protests over the Trump executive order on immigration. Pichai and Google co-Founder Sergey Brin — both immigrants — voiced their concerns over the order that limited travel to the U.S. from Muslim-majority countries.
Next week Attorney General Jeff Sessions is slated to meet with state attorneys general to discuss concerns of anti-conservative bias by the technology industry including Google.
Google’s political fortunes in Washington have dramatically shifted. It now faces tougher scrutiny of its business practices and new threats of regulation. And it’s being stalked by allegations of partisan bias that have intensified in recent weeks. Digital experts had shot down assertions by Trump that Google has rigged search results to promote negative news about his presidency.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are pushing to have Google testify. And congressional lawmakers slammed the Internet giant for failing to send a top executive to testify at a hearing alongside Facebook and Twitter earlier this month. The Senate Intelligence Committee left an open chair to underscore Google’s absence. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, has also called for the federal government to reopen its antitrust probe of Google, which was closed in 2013.
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