Google is still exploring a controversial proposal to relaunch its search engine in China, the company’s chief executive has confirmed, while insisting it does not have any current plans to return to the country.
Sundar Pichai has told politicians on the House Judiciary Committee that his company is looking into what a search engine in China would look like, despite concerns that it would mean having to comply with the country’s strict censorship laws. Google left China in 2010 saying it was “no longer willing” to censor its search results.
Mr Pichai told members of the committee: “This effort currently is an internal effort. I’m happy to be transparent to the extent we take steps towards launching a product in China.”
And while he said Google had “no plans to launch a service in China”, he refused to rule out doing so in future.
Mr Pichai said: “One of the things that’s important to us as a company, we have a stated mission of providing users with information, and so we always think it’s in our duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information.
“I have a commitment, but as I’ve said earlier on this we’ll be very thoughtful and we’ll engage widely as we make progress.”
Details of Google’s previously secret plans to launch its services in China — under the code name Project Dragonfly — were revealed by The Intercept news site earlier this year. It was another month, however, before the company admitted the existence of the project.
Since then, the project has attracted criticism both inside and outside the company. Hundreds of employees have protested the idea that Google might censor search results and potentially give Chinese authorities access to individuals’ data.
Under repeated questioning on Tuesday, Mr Pichai revealed further details about the project — including that at one point it had more than 100 employees working on its scope.
The project was criticised by members of the committee, who expressed concerns about the terms under which a Google search engine could operate in China.
David Cicilline, a Democratic representative, said: “At a moment of rising authoritarianism around the world, when more leaders are using surveillance, censorship and repression against their own people, we’re in a moment that we must reassert American moral leadership.”
At the same time, Mr Pichai welcomed attempts by members of Congress to draft what would be the US’s first national data privacy bill, which many expect to come to fruition next year.
Technology industry executives have in recent months lobbied heavily for a federal privacy bill, warning that they might otherwise face a “patchwork” of different pieces of legislation across the 50 US states.
Mr Pichai said such a law could be built on the European General Data Protection Regulation, which others in his industry have argued is too broad and onerous.
GDPR is “a well thought-out, crafted piece of legislation,” the Google boss said. “I do think there is some value for companies to have consistent global regulations. I think it’s also important for users as they navigate services globally and so I do see value in aligning where we can.”
It was Mr Pichai’s first testimony in front of Congress on Tuesday, capping a politically turbulent year for the biggest US technology companies. He had previously refused to appear previously before the Senate intelligence committee alongside Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter at a September hearing, and instead was represented by an empty chair.
Much of the hearing on Tuesday was taken up by oft-repeated accusations from Republican members that Google’s search engine was biased in favour of liberal news outlets and views.
Mr Pichai denied this was the case, saying: “We use a robust methodology to reflect what is being said about any given topic at any given time. I can assure you we do it without regards to political ideology.”