On Tuesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee on a host of different subjects, including perceived political bias in the company’s search results, artificial intelligence, and alleged manipulation of search results.
One looming issue though, which came up a handful of times in the hearing, is DragonFly, Google’s highly controversial search product for the Chinese market. As The Intercept first revealed, DragonFly would censor certain search terms, in particular around human rights. The search platform would also make it easier for Chinese authorities to surveill and track those using the service.
During the hearing, Pichai responded to a question about DragonFly from US Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who asked how the company could censor search results from users seeking a “lifeline” of democracy and freedom.
“Right now we have no plans to launch in China,” Pichai said.
Pressed again by US Representative Tom Marino on DragonFly, Pichai said “Right now there are no plans for us to launch a search product in China.”
Marino asked how working with the Chinese government to help censor certain search topics can sit with Google’s core values.
“We always have evidence, based on every country we have operated in, us reaching out and giving users more information has a very positive impact, and we feel that calling, but right now there are no plans to launch in China.”
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Pichai said he will be fully transparent with policy makers if the company ever does “approach a position like that,” meaning launching a search product in China.
Pichai described DragonFly as a "limited effort internally," and said the company developed "what search could look like" in China.
According to The Intercept, in July Ben Gomes, Google’s search engine chief, told staff that the plan was to launch the search product as soon as possible. The Intercept noted the project has been in development since spring 2017, and involved around 300 employees. (Pichai said in one response that, at one point, the project had a hundred people working on it.)
On Twitter, in response to Pichai’s comments, associate professor at the University of North Carolina Zeynep Tufekci wrote “this very answer must have been lawyered to death and practiced. The ‘launch’ is not planned for, yet. There are plans for search for China, just not plans for exactly how and when it gets launched.”
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
After Pichai repeatedly claimed there are ‘no plans to launch’ its Chinese search engine, Marino asked what information the company would share with Chinese authorities if Google did offer a product in the country.
“We would look at what the conditions are to operate,” Pichai said.
It’s no secret that Chinese law is particularly strict against technology companies operating in the country, requiring them to hand over data collected on users. Apple outsources its Chinese iCloud services to a local company. An Associated Press investigation recently found that shared data can even include information collected by cars such as Teslas.
During the hearing, a protester held a poster at the doorway, showing a Google logo in the style of the Chinese flag, according to a tweet from CNN senior media reporter Oliver Darcy.
“Getting access to information is an important human right,” Pichai said.
Update: This piece has been updated to include additional comments from Pichai made during the hearing.
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