Google CEO denies search launch in China, commits to transparency

Sundar Pichai does leave the open door to returning to China someday.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
3 min read

Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies before Congress on Tuesday.

C-SPAN screenshot by CNET

Google CEO Sundar Pichai signaled Tuesday that his company will take a cautious approach to going back into China, if it ever does.

The search giant has been under persistent criticism for its Project Dragonfly, which would bring a censored search engine to China. The project has prompted employee protests and resignations, as well as criticism from Amnesty International.

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"We have no plans to launch in China. We don't have a search product there," Pichai said during a closely watched hearing Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee that focused on Google's privacy policies and business practices.

Google will be "fully transparent" about any plans for returning to China, Pichai said in response to questions from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas. Pichai left the door open to going through with such plans by highlighting Google's mission of providing people worldwide with access to information.

Later during the hearing, Pichai acknowledged that Google had done work on such a search engine internally, but not in China itself. He said the work was done within the search team but called it a "limited effort."

"We have developed and explored what search could look like if it were to be launched in a country like China, and that's what we explored," Pichai said, adding that at one point over 100 people were working on the project.

The project was underway internally for "a while," Pichai said, but he added that other efforts have been developed for a long time and never launched, too. He also said Google didn't have discussions with Chinese government officials about the search engine, but didn't clarify whether there were discussions about other topics. 

When pressed to commit to ruling out censorship and the surveillance of users -- concerns brought up by several lawmakers -- Pichai would only reiterate his commitment to engaging widely on any project. 

Prior to his comments, several lawmakers on Tuesday raised concerns about Dragonfly, Google's efforts toward re-entering the Chinese search engine market. 

In 2010 when the company initially retreated from the country, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union, cited the "totalitarianism" of Chinese policies. The new search product would reportedly blacklist certain terms the Chinese government finds unacceptable, as well as tie search queries to users' phone numbers, allowing the government to more easily track searches.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California and House majority leader, used his opening comments to highlight concerns with Dragonfly.

"This news represents a troubling possibility that Google is being used to strengthen China's system of surveillance, repression and control," he said.

He mentioned Google's withdrawal from China eight years ago to avoid censorship and any compromise to its commitment to a free and open internet.

"The American people deserve to know if something changed and if so what," McCarthy said.

Here is Pichai's full response to Jackson Lee:

We have no plans to launch in China. We don't have a search product there. Our core mission is to provide users access to information, and getting access to information is an important human right, so we are always compelled across the world to try hard to provide that information. But right now there are no plans to launch search in China. I'm committed to being fully transparent, including with policymakers, to the extent we ever develop plans to do that.

CNET's Richard Nieva and Roger Cheng contributed to this report.

First published Dec. 11 at 8:33 a.m. PT. 
Update, 9:26 a.m. and 10:16 a.m. PT: Adds more comments from Pichai. 

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