Google is still considering whether to launch a censored version of its search product in China, CEO Sundar Pichai said Monday.
“It’s 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,” Pichai said at the Wired25 conference in San Francisco.
The company publicly confirmed the existence of the controversial project during a Senate committee hearing in late September. Codenamed “Dragonfly” within Google (GOOGL), the project was first revealed by The Intercept in August. Google had been working on the project in secret, but after the reports about its existence emerged, more than 1,000 Google employees signed a letter asking for more transparency, according to a New York Times report.
On Monday, Pichai described Dragonfly as an exploratory internal project. He said the company’s absence in China — a country with 20% of the world’s population — weighed heavily on Google, which has a mission to bring information “to everyone.”
“We wanted to learn what it would look like if Google were in China,” Pichai said. “So that’s what we built internally. If Google were to operate in China, what would it look like?”
Google found that Chinese government censors would block less than 1% of users’ searches, according to Pichai.
The prospect of Google returning to China has fueled criticism from human rights groups that the company, which has long advocated a free and open internet, would be doing the bidding of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which runs a vast censorship apparatus that stifles dissent.
Google had a search engine in China from 2006 to 2010, but hasn’t offered it in the past eight years because of concerns over government censorship. A handful of other Google products are available in the country, including its Android mobile operating system and a few apps.
Pichai said that by offering a search engine in China again, the company would be able to provide users with better information than what’s available on important subjects, such as cancer treatments.
Doing business with the Pentagon
The CEO also discussed another recent controversial decision by the company. In June, Google declined to renew a contract with the Pentagon after employees and outside groups said they were concerned about the use of artificial intelligence in weaponry.
“When you are so early with a powerful technology, how do you thoughtfully work your way through it?” Pichai said Monday.
Google also pulled out of the bidding for a multibillion dollar cloud computing contract with the Pentagon this month because the project could have conflicted with its corporate principles on artificial intelligence.
Amazon (AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos on Monday defended his company’s pursuit of the contract, saying it would continue to do business with the Department of Defense, despite internal and external criticism.
“If big tech companies are going to turn their back on the DoD, this country is going to be in trouble,” Bezos said at the Wired25 event.
Pichai said that Google is still working with the military on other projects, but is sticking to things it’s more “qualified to do.” That includes areas such as cybersecurity and logistics.
He played down the influence employee protests had over the company’s decision making.
“Throughout Google’s history we have given our employees a lot of voice and say in it, but we don’t run the company by holding referendums,” said Pichai. “It’s an important input we take seriously. But even on this particular issue it’s not what the employees said, its more the debate within the AI community.”