On stage Monday night, Google CEO Sundar Pichai acknowledged the company’s leaked plans to create a censored search app for China and said that it found that it could “serve well over 99 percent of queries.”
The Intercept first broke the news of Google’s “Project Dragonfly” earlier this summer. The censored search product would block search results for queries that the Chinese government deemed sensitive, like “human rights” and “student protest.” Pichai said on stage at Wired’s 25th anniversary summit in San Francisco that the efforts were in their early stages, but that Google wanted to experiment with how such a product could work.
“We wanted to learn what it would look like if Google were in China, so that’s what we built internally,” Pichai said. “If Google would operate in China, what would it look like? What queries would we be able to serve? It turns out we’d be able to serve well over 99 percent of queries and there are many, many areas where we would provide information better than what’s available.”
He used an example of how Google could serve better information about cancer treatment, seemingly referencing a 2016 case where Chinese regulators investigated domestic search giant Baidu when a college student died after finding “distorted” information about cancer treatment.
“Things like that weigh heavily on us,” Pichai said. “So we want to balance that with what conditions would be. We are very early — we don’t know whether we could or would do this in China, but we felt it was important for us to explore. I take a long-term view on this and I think it’s important for us, given how many users there are, to think hard about this problem.”
Pichai didn’t address reports that Google’s potential app would link users’ searches to their personal phone numbers.
Google initially withdrew its search service from China in 2010 due to increased concerns about censorship and cyber attacks, subsequently losing access to the enormous market of 772 million internet users there. In the years since, China has increasingly curtailed what its citizens can or cannot do online, like removing foreign TV shows from online platforms and requiring people who use online forums to register with their real names.
Since news of the project first leaked, human rights groups and U.S. politicians have called on Google to cancel its plans and hundreds of Google employees signed a letter saying that it raised “urgent moral and ethical issues.”
Pichai said on stage that, in any country that Google operates, it must balance its values — “providing users access to information, freedom of expression, and user privacy” — with obeying the local laws.