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Google CEO Sundar Pichai refuses to rule out censored Chinese search engine

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Google CEO Sundar Pichai refuses to rule out censored Chinese search engine” was written by Julia Carrie Wong in Oakland, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 11th December 2018 18.45 UTC

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Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, testified before the House judiciary committee on Tuesday morning, three months after his company thumbed its nose at Congress by failing to appear alongside Facebook and Twitter at a Senate hearing on election interference.

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In a hearing heavy on partisan theatrics, Pichai notably refused to rule out launching a censored search engine in China, a controversial plan that has garnered significant criticism from human rights organizations as well as rank-and-file Google employees.

“Right now there are no plans to launch search in China,” Pichai said numerous times, repeating a talking point that the company has relied on since news of the project leaked in August. Pichai characterized the Chinese search product as an “internal effort” and said the company would be “transparent” and consult with policy makers before launching in China.

Pressed to rule out launching a tool that would enable censorship and surveillance in China, however, Pichai appeared to offer the company’s probable justification for reentering a market that it left in 2010: “We think it’s in our duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information.”

“We have explored what search could look like if it were launched in a country like China,” the executive eventually conceded, though he dodged questions about specifics. He also revealed that “at one point” the company had more than 100 people working on the project.

Pichai also faced questions on data and privacy issues, as well as allegations of partisan political bias – a subject of outsized fixation for Republican lawmakers.

Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the committee, set the tone for much of the questioning in his opening statement, when he discussed the troubling nature of “allegations Google manipulates its algorithms to favor the political party its likes, the ideas it likes or the products it likes” – allegations that he offered no evidence for.

“I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way,” Pichai said in opening remarks. “To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests. We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions – and we have no shortage of them among our own employees.”

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Pichai also emphasized the American-ness of the global company. “It’s no coincidence that a company dedicated to the free flow of information was founded right here in the US,” he said. “As an American company, we cherish the values and freedoms that have allowed us to grow and serve so many users.”

More enlightening lines of questioning addressed Google’s privacy practices and prodigious data collection.

“Google is able to collect an amount of information about its users that would even make the NSA blush,” Goodlatte said.

Pichai’s responses to questions about Google’s data collection focused on the ability of users to control their privacy concerns, and generally emphasized that Google collects information in order to provide services that users want. That tradeoff was illustrated when Goodlatte both raised concerns about Google collecting information about users’ location – and admitted that he uses a fitness tracker to count the number of steps he takes each day.

The executive’s testimony comes at a time of increasing scrutiny for Google. The company will emerge from 2018 significantly less damaged than Facebook, which has borne the brunt of public outrage over fake news and foreign interference in elections.

But a growing labor movement within the company is putting pressure on Google over sensitive issues such as the Chinese censorship project, sexual harassment and performing work for the defense department.

The company continues to draw the ire of antitrust and privacy campaigners, who hope that the incoming Democratic majority in the House could lead to regulation of the giant internet platforms.

But the partisan political attacks on Google appeared to work in the company’s favor by dragooning Democratic representatives into defending the company. Some Democratic lawmakers were more forceful in their assertions of Google’s right to a political viewpoint than Pichai was.

The hearing was Pichai’s first outing on Capitol Hill. The Indian-born executive took the helm of Google in 2015, when the company restructured and the then CEO, Larry Page, relinquished the role to be chief executive of Alphabet.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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