WASHINGTON — We all have trouble with our email sometimes. We don’t typically get to harangue the CEO of Google about why, say, Dad’s Gmail is acting up, though.
You have to be a member of Congress to pull that.
Rep. Greg Steube, Republican from Florida, went there during Wednesday’s high-profile congressional hearing about tech giants’ market dominance and anti-competitive behavior. Handed the chance to throw any question at some of the most powerful people in the world, Steube pressed Google CEO Sundar Pichai to troubleshoot his parents’ recent email issues.
Specifically, they weren’t getting his campaign emails, which Steube seemed to think was because of an anti-conservative bias among Silicon Valley titans. Pichai responded by implying that Steube and his dad don’t understand how Gmail tabs work.
“Suddenly, I get elected to Congress, and I’m now up here in Washington, D.C., and my parents, who have a Gmail account, aren’t getting my campaign emails,” Steube said. “Why is this only happening to Republicans?”
Pichai responded by talking about how Gmail automatically sorts emails by their source, breaking out messages from personal contacts into a folder separate from those sent by self-promoting groups like a congressional campaign.
“We have a tabbed organization,” Pichai said, veering into tech-support mode. “The primary tab has emails from friends and family, and the secondary tab has other notifications, and so on….”
Steube interrupted to point out that it was his dad who complained that the campaign emails weren’t showing up. And that meant Pichai’s statement that the Primary tab should feature all emails from family members didn’t make any sense to him.
“Clearly, that familial thing that you’re talking about didn’t apply to my emails,” Steube said, glossing over the fact that the emails were coming from his campaign, not from his personal account.
“Our systems, probably, are not able to understand that it’s your father,” Pichai deadpanned.
Earlier reporting by The Markup found that political campaign emails regularly end up in other tabs besides primary. The outlet reviewed emails from multiple candidates in the most recent Democratic presidential primary to find that the vast majority of emails from political campaigns do not end up in the "Primary" inbox. That piece found some candidates’ emails appeared to be getting through more readily than others, although it didn’t address the question of liberal vs. conservative bias.
And so it went during Wednesday’s hotly-anticipated congressional inquiry into tech companies’ role in the economy. Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee echoed Steube’s suspicions that the tech giants might be harboring an anti-conservative bias, though most refrained from getting into their families’ technical issues.
Democrats declared themselves troubled too, but they appeared bothered more by the sheer size and monopolistic stature of the companies than by any alleged political bias.
“Simply put: They have too much power,” said Rep. David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island.
The assembled CEOs, appearing on screens, insisted they brought no political bias to their work and batted back questions about their size and market behavior.
As the afternoon drew to a close, the two sides of the aisle didn’t seem to be coalescing toward any particular bipartisan solution to the problems they saw in Silicon Valley.
And no one quite nailed down what’s going on with Steube’s dad’s emails, either.