Google CEO Sundar Pichai publicly addressed his company’s plans to re-enter the Chinese market with a search and news-oriented product, telling a crowd at Wired’s 25th anniversary summit that such a service would be capable of serving 99 percent of queries. Pichai described the Chinese market as “important for us to explore” given its size and the very high likelihood that it will become the largest and most lucrative internet-using population on the planet.
“We wanted to learn what it would look like if Google were in China,” Pichai said. “It’s very early, we don’t know whether we would or could do this in China but we felt like it was important for us to explore. I think it’s important for us given how important the market is and how many users there are.”
The conversation, between Pichai and journalist Steven Levy, marks the first time the chief executive has publicly addressed Google’s China-centric search plans, which are known internally as Project Dragonfly. Prior to this, information about Project Dragonfly has been limited to initial revelations first reported by The Intercept, the ensuing internal leaks, and reports of Google representatives’ conversations with Congress.
Though Pichai describes his company’s China plans as very preliminary, it’s clear that backlash within and outside the company has been vocal and will only intensify in the coming months. Numerous employees have signed an open letter calling for Google to abandon the project, which critics fear will suppress free expression in China and be weaponized by the country’s government as a means of silencing dissidents and surveilling its citizens. Congress and also the White House have also expressed disapproval, calling the potential product a threat to democracy and a way to “strengthen Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers,” in the words of Vice President Mike Pence.
Late last month, research scientist Jack Poulson publicly resigned from the company and has slammed the project to re-launch a search product in China as “unethical” and antithetical to the company’s values. “I was compelled to resign my position on August 31, 2018, in the wake of a pattern of unethical and unaccountable decision making from company leadership,” Poulson wrote in his letter of resignation. “This culminated in their refusal to disclose information about Project Dragonfly, a version of Google Search tailored to the censorship and surveillance demands of the Chinese government.”
According to The New York Times, Poulson made the decision after meeting with Google’s artificial intelligence chief, Jeff Dean, who downplayed concerns that Google employees might be asked to work on projects they philosophical and morally disagree with. Google has responded to the uproar within the company by restricting access to Project Dragonfly documents, The Intercept reported back in August.