Google is still considering whether to launch a censored version of its search engine in China, CEO Sundar Pichai has said, in rare public comments about the controversial and secret project.
Google’s possible return to China – a market it abandoned over censorship concerns in 2010 – was first leaked in August by The Intercept which reported that the US tech giant was secretly developing “Dragonfly”, a custom-made search engine for the huge Chinese market.
On Monday, the Indian-American CEO said the plan was in the “very early” stages and may not progress.
“It’s very early. We don’t know whether we could or would do this in China, but we felt it was important for us to explore,” Pichai said at the Wired25 conference in San Francisco.
“I think it’s important for us given how important the market is and how many users there are,” he said.
Through internal tests, he said Google found it would be able to serve “well over 99% of queries”.
The prospect of Google returning to China has fuelled criticism from human rights groups that the company, which has long advocated a free and open internet, would be doing the bidding of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which runs a vast censorship apparatus that stifles dissent.
Since news of the “Dragonfly” project first leaked, hundreds of Google employees signed a letter saying that it raised “urgent moral and ethical issues,” CNBC reported.
Pichai described the “Dragonfly” as an exploratory internal project. He said Google’s absence in China — a country with 20% of the world’s population — weighed heavily on the company, which has a mission to bring information “to everyone.” “We wanted to learn what it would look like if Google were in China,” Pichai said. “So that’s what we built internally. If Google were to operate in China, what would it look like?” Google found that Chinese government censors would block less than 1% of users’ searches, CNN quoted Pichai as saying.
Google had a search engine in China from 2006 to 2010. The tech giant quit China eight years ago in protest at the country’s censorship laws and alleged government hacks.
Earlier this month, US vice-president Mike Pence called for Google to immediately halt work on Dragonfly, saying in a speech that it would “strengthen Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers”.
Pichai said that by offering a search engine in China again, Google would be able to provide some 800 million users with better information than what is available on important subjects, such as cancer treatments.
In any country that Google operates, it must balance its values — “providing users access to information, freedom of expression, and user privacy” — with obeying the local laws, he was quoted as saying by CNBC. The 46-year-old Pichai also played down the influence employee protests had over the company’s decision making.
“Throughout Google’s history we have given our employees a lot of voice and say in it, but we don’t run the company by holding referendums,” he said. “It’s an important input we take seriously. But even on this particular issue it’s not what the employees said, its more the debate within the AI community,” Pichai said.
[This story has been published from an agency feed without modifications to the text.]