Google's CEO says it may never launch that censored search engine it made for China

Sundar Pichai, in his first public acknowledgement of Project Dragonfly, says the effort was an internal project to find out what was possible for Google in China.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Shara Tibken
Richard Nieva
4 min read

Sundar Pichai, the head of Google, has been under intense scrutiny recently. 

James Martin/CNET

Google has been experimenting with a censored search engine that would work in China, but it's not sure if it will ever launch the service, CEO Sundar Pichai said Monday. 

Pichai, speaking during the Wired25 conference at the SFJazz Center in San Francisco, said Google started the internal project -- dubbed Project Dragonfly -- to see what was possible in China, a country with such strict censorship laws that many US companies, including Google, don't operate their services there.

The company has been roiled by reports about Project Dragonfly, the company's apparent plan to build a censored search engine for China, eight years after initially retreating from the country. At the time of the departure, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union, cited the "totalitarianism" of Chinese policies.

Watch this: Google says China is important to explore -- even if it means censorship

The new search project has also drawn criticism from Google's workforce. A handful of employees have reportedly quit over the initiative. And about 1,000 employees signed an open letter asking the company to be transparent about the project and to create an ethical review process for it that includes rank-and-file employees, not just high-level executives.

Google has said little about the project. However, last month, Keith Enright, Google's chief privacy officer, confirmed during a hearing with the Senate Commerce Committee that there is indeed a Project Dragonfly, but he wouldn't elaborate.

Monday's remarks are the first public acknowledgment by Pichai that Google has been working on such a project. 

Pichai noted Google is constantly "balancing our set of values of providing users access of information, freedom of expression, user privacy, but we also follow the rule of law in every country." China has been a particular challenge, he said. 

"That's the reason we did the internal project," he said. "We wanted to learn what it would look like if Google were in China."

After building the project internally, Google found that it would "be able to serve well over 99 percent of queries," Pichai said. "There are many, many areas we'd be able to provide info that's better than what's available." 

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But he said that Google wants "to balance it with what the conditions would be. It's very early. We don't know whether we would or could do this in China, but we felt it was important for us to explore ... given how important the market is and how many users there are."

Pichai's interview at Wired25 comes as Google, which turned 20 years old last month, faces some of the biggest challenges in the company's history.

Google and Pichai have been under intense scrutiny recently, especially from Washington, DC. Last month, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified before the Senate over election security, disinformation and the perceived biases of the companies' algorithms. Larry Page, CEO of Google's parent company Alphabet, and Pichai, CEO of Google itself, were invited, but both declined, spurring widespread anger from lawmakers.

Pichai is expected to give his own congressional testimony next month after the midterm elections.

Google has also been hit with allegations of political bias. In August, President Donald Trump accused Google of political bias and having a liberal bent. He tweeted that Google's search results are "RIGGED," saying the company is "suppressing voices of Conservatives." He also tweeted a video claiming Google promoted former President Barack Obama's State of the Union addresses every January but not his. Trump added the hashtag #StopTheBias.

Google rejected the president's claim, saying its homepage did promote Trump's address in January. The company also explained it didn't promote either Trump's or Obama's address from their first years in office because those speeches aren't technically considered State of the Union addresses. A screenshot from the Internet Archive, which keeps a record of what appears on web domains, backs up Google's explanation.

Working with the Defense Department

Another controversy is Google's decision earlier Google earlier this month to pull out of bidding for a $10 billion Pentagon contract after employee protests. Google said that the project may conflict with its principles for ethical use of AI.

Watch this: Google says it won't work with Defense Department on developing AI weapons

Pichai on Monday said Google plans to keep working with the Defense Department but not when it comes to the use of artificial intelligence for autonomous weaponry. He noted it's not just Google employees who have been concerned about the use. 

"If you talk about senior researchers working in the field, they're worried that when you're so early with powerful tech, how do you thoughtfully work your way through it?" Pichai said. 

"Once we started working on AI, we realized it was different from other things we've worked on," Pichai added. "We commited ourselves to a set of AI principles -- kind of articulated our goals on how we would do it. ... and things we would not pursue. ... It's something that will evolve over time, but we need to take it very, very seriously."

He said that while Google is a much bigger company than it was 20 years ago, it still has the same values. But because it has so many users, "with that comes a sense of responsibility now," he said. "We're much more deliberate about what we do and how we think about it. When we think about impact, we don't think about users alone." It also considers societies, nonprofits, for-profit businesses and other entities, he said.  

Correction at 8:27 p.m. PT: Corrects quote from Sundar Pichai in the ninth paragraph. 

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