Google is considering the launch of a search engine in China, the company’s CEO told lawmakers Tuesday, but is refusing to answer if it has discussed the project with officials from Beijing.
Sundar Pichai told the House of Representatives during a hearing that he “will be transparent” with the internet giant’s plans to open up a search engine tailored to Chinese authorities' requirements, but evaded pointed questions from lawmakers.
Pichai described the project, named Dragonfly, as an “internal effort” and stressed there were no current plans to launch the product.
But when asked point blank by lawmakers, he refused to discount the possibility the search engine could be used as “a tool for surveillance and censorship in China.”
“We think it is in our duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information,” Pichai responded.
Google pulled out of China in 2010 after hacking concerns and a fear that the company would be subject to government censorship.
The New York Times first reported that the search giant is planning on building a censored search engine in a potential return to China, an idea that did not sit well with certain members of Congress.
“At a moment of rising authoritarianism around the world when more leaders are using surveillance, censorship and repression against their own people, we are at a moment were we must reassert American leadership,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., during the hearing.
Cicilline was among a bipartisan group of lawmakers who wrote a letter to Pichai in September, warning him against creating a product that could crack down on free speech in China.
“As policymakers, we have a responsibility to ensure that American companies are not perpetuating human rights abuses abroad,” the lawmakers wrote.
This is not the first time Google’s plans have sparked consternation among some U.S. officials, who feel spurned by the company’s plans to end its partnership with the Pentagon’s Project Maven but still work with China. The project uses artificial intelligence to sort through and refine drone imagery, and the company said it would not renew its contract with the Pentagon over fears the technology was used for lethal purposes.
Without explicitly naming Google, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats took a veiled shot at the company during an Oct. 18 event hosted by Cyberscoop, saying that “some companies are reluctant to partner with us because they believe that it could hurt their brand name.”
“If you are a U.S. company that believes you should limit your partnership with the U.S. government on national security matters because it would hurt your brand, then perhaps you should think about the harm to our overarching national security interests of pursuing greater business opportunities in a country like China, where the private sector and the state often merge into the same,” Coats said.
This article was updated at 12:56 p.m. to include additional testimony by Pichai.
Justin Lynch is the Associate Editor at Fifth Domain. He has written for the New Yorker, the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, and others. Follow him on Twitter @just1nlynch.