Members of the House Judiciary committee have today closely questioned Google’s CEO about the company’s intentions in China, following reports this summer it’s planning a controversial return to the market despite local censorship of Internet services.
Mountain View pulled its search engine out of China back in 2010, under pressure over censored search results. It also cited cyber attacks originating from the country as factoring into its decision to leave.
So Congress wanted to know what exactly had changed that Google is considering reversing that exit, and how doing so wouldn’t contradict its own “core values”.
A none-too-comfortable Pichai stuck closely to a qualified line on the topic, telling Congress Google has no plans “right now” to launch in China, thereby leaving the door open for a launch at a future date.
At the same time he pointed to Google’s “mission”, of making information digitally accessible, to justify what he couched as an exploratory, internal effort at this stage — saying the company mission underpins its ongoing interest in the market.
He made no mention of the 800M+ Chinese Internet users that Google could potentially add to its business if it returned to the market as factoring into his calculations.
“Right now there are no plans for us to launch a search product in China,” Pichai told the committee. “We are, in general, always looking to see how best — it’s part of our core mission and our principles — to try hard to provide users with information.
“We always have evidence, based on every country we’ve 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. To the extent that we ever approach a position like that I will be fully transparent, including with policymakers here. And engage and consult widely.”
A little earlier in the session the committee was briefly interrupted by a person trying to enter the room holding a poster depicting the Google logo superimposed on the Chinese flag.
The chair asked for the individual to be removed and the door to be shut.
Asked directly whether he would “avoid launching a tool of censorship and surveillance in China while you are CEO of Google”, Pichai trod carefully in his response, avoiding making any such categorical commitment — but saying he would be “very thoughtful” about any relaunch.
“Congressman I commit to engaging,” he said, beginning his answer. “One of the things which is important to us as a company, we have a stated mission of providing users with information, and so we always — we think it’s in our duty to explore possibilities. To give users access to information… I have that commitment but as I said earlier on this we’ll be very thoughtful and we will engage widely as we make progress.”
He was also asked directly whether there are any current discussions with any member of the Chinese government on launching the app. “This effort currently is an internal effort,” he replied to that, reiterating again that he would be “happy to consult/be transparent should we take steps towards launching a product in China”.
Asked who is leading the China project, Pichai also kept things vague — saying it’s being undertaken by Google’s “search teams”, before adding: “But these are distributed efforts. It’s a limited effort internally currently.”
One of the policymakers who questioned Pichai about Google’s intentions in China, congressman David Cicilline, suggested returning to the market would be “completely inconsistent” with Google’s recently announced AI principles.
But ending his five minutes of allotted question time with the Google CEO, Cicilline said concern about technologists working with anti-democratic regimes “goes beyond Google — and frankly beyond China”.
“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,” he said, asking also for an open letter from a coalition of human and civil rights organizations, opposing the launch of a censored Google search engine for the Chinese market, to be submitted to the committee for the record.
A little later in the session Pichai was also asked by a different congressman how many engineers worked on the China project. He said the number varied but at one point more than 100 Googlers had been engaged on it.
He declined to specify exactly how long Google has been working on the project — saying only that it’s been “underway for a while”.