Google CEO Sundar Pichai spoke publicly Monday about controversial efforts to launch a censored search app in China — defending the decision by saying that “well over 99 percent of queries” would be served.
Pichai appeared at the Wired conference in San Francisco, where he was asked to address the controversy that prompted criticism from within the company, as well as from governments, activists and rights groups.
The Intercept reported in August on a secret Google project called “Dragonfly” in which a censored version of the search app for the Chinese market would automatically blacklist words such as “human rights,” “student protest,” and “Nobel Prize” to placate Beijing.
The executive admitted the company was looking into the possibility but said it had taken no decision to launch the product.
“We wanted to learn what it would look like if Google were in China, so that's what we built internally,” Pichai said.
The CEO said internal tests had shown the company could serve “well over 99 percent” of search queries in the Chinese market, adding that “there are many, many areas where we would provide information better than what's available.”
“It's very early, we don't know whether we would or could do this in China but we felt like it was important for us to explore. I think it's important for us given how important the market is and how many users there are,” he added.
Pichai’s comments contradict the leaked transcript of a July meeting conducted by Ben Gomes, the company’s search chief, where he said the plan was to launch the app as soon as possible.
The CEO did not address a report that the app would link users’ personal searches to their phone numbers.
Earlier this week Kai-Fu Lee, who led Google’s first foray into the Chinese market more than a decade ago, told VICE News that any attempt to re-enter the market would be doomed to fail because companies such as Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent have become so dominant.
Vijay Boyapati, another former Google engineer, revealed Monday that while he was working on the Google News team in 2016 he had refused a request to censor results for the Chinese market.
Speaking about current Google employees, Boyapati said: “The thing I find disturbing, after all these years, is the willingness of my former colleagues to not only comply with the censorship but their enthusiasm in rationalizing it.”
He urged Google employees to fight back against the company’s demands to work on censored products.
Cover image: Sundar Pichai speaks onstage at WIRED25 Summit on October 15, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for WIRED25 )