Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee yesterday, and lawmakers peppered him with everything from allegations of bias against conservatives to questions about location data.
It could hardly be said that the focus of the hearing was on Google’s plans for China, but the subject did come up from a handful of lawmakers, who expressed concern over reports that Google has been working on a search product that would comply with the Chinese government’s stringent surveillance and censorship demands. The project, codenamed Dragonfly, has led to protests from both human rights activists and Google employees.
Under questioning, Pichai seemed to hew closely to talking points about the project, repeating the company’s previous statement that the project was only exploratory. He repeatedly said that there were “no plans” for the company to launch a search product in China.
The statement, which Google has supplied similar versions of to journalists in response to questions about the project, appeared to thread a needle. Pichai said “right now” the company did not have plans, but he left the door open on to how close the project was to launching in the past and suggested that the company could still launch the product in the future.
“Right now, there are no plans for us to launch a search product in China,” Pichai told Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) in response to questions about the company’s plans. But The Intercept, which first broke the Dragonfly news, has reported that wasn’t always the case. An article from the outlet published in October suggested that the company may have only been months away from a completed version of the product before public scrutiny derailed the plan.
If the company moves ahead with launching a censored search project, Marino asked, what would that mean for information the company shares with the Chinese government?
Pichai again framed the question as speculative. “Any time we look to operate in a country, we would look at what the conditions are to operate,” he responded. “There are times in the past we have debated the conditions to operate and we explore a wide range of possibilities. Currently, it is an effort only internally for us. We are not doing this in China.”
Pichai also made it clear that, whether the company currently has “plans” to launch the product, Google certainly hasn’t halted work completely. In fact, it has continued to devote substantial resources to the project. While saying the effort was “limited,” Pichai at one point said Google had devoted about 100 people to it, although The Intercept has reported the number is closer to 300. “I’m happy to, you know, consult, be transparent as we take steps toward launching a product in China,” Pichai said, suggesting there are ongoing conversations about what that future may bring for China.
Protestor who was just kicked out of the House Judiciary hearing for protesting @Google complicity with the Chinese government’s human rights practices #DropDragonfly #Googlehearing pic.twitter.com/bEbEvvvLrc— Francisco Bencosme (@Bencosmef) December 11, 2018
Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) was notably critical of Google’s China plans, saying they appeared to violate the company’s recently released AI principles. “It’s hard for me to imagine you could operate in the Chinese market under the current government framework and maintain a commitment to universal values such as freedom of expression and personal privacy,” he said to Pichai. The point echoed concerns from human rights groups, who sent an open letter to Pichai about Dragonfly yesterday.
With that in mind, Cicilline asked, would Google explicitly rule out bringing a search product to China?
Pichai wouldn’t. “We think it’s our duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information,” he said. “I have that commitment, but as I said earlier, we will be very thoughtful and we will engage widely as we make progress.”