A few weeks ago, Google tried to downplay reports that it had developed a search engine that would allow the Chinese government censors to scan a user’s search history.
But on Monday night, Google CEO Sundar Pichai publicly spoke about the merits of the search engine named Dragonfly.
“It turns out we’ll be able to serve well over 99 percent of the queries,” Pichai said at the WIRED 25 summit.
“There are many, many areas where we would provide information better than what’s available,” he said, using a search for cancer treatments as an example. “Today people either get fake cancer treatments or they actually get useful information.”
Although creating a search engine that gives Chinese government censors full access to whatever anyone searches from a phone has brought howls of protest, Pichai said Google wants to tap the Chinese market, and this is the way to do it.
“It’s a wonderful, innovative market. We wanted to learn what it would look like if we were in China, so that’s what we built internally,” Pichai said.
“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, we feel obliged to think hard about this problem and take a longer-term view.”
“We are compelled by our mission (to) provide information to everyone, and (China is) 20 percent of the world’s population,” he added.
Pichai said critics do not fully understand Google’s internal angst over the issue of balancing access to information with the rules of the nations in which Google operates.
“People don’t understand fully, but you’re always balancing a set of values,” he said. “We are providing users access to information, freedom of expression, user privacy, and we also follow the rule of law in every country we do.”
Prior to developing Dragonfly, Google was last in the Chinese market in 2010 before it pulled out. Times have changed, and Google wanted to see what a new search engine would look like, Pichai 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.”
Last month, The Intercept reported that a prototype of Dragonfly would allow the government to know which phone number searched for which information. The report also said that Google was creating a censorship blacklist that included search terms such as “human rights,” “student protest,” and “Nobel Prize.”
Vice President Mike Pence recently called for Google to drop the project.
Speaking in early October, Pence said business leaders should think twice about the Chinese market “if it means turning over their intellectual property or abetting Beijing’s oppression.”
“For example, Google should immediately end development of the ‘Dragonfly’ app that will strengthen Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers,” he said.
After initial reports about Dragonfly emerged, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators asked for the facts, according to a letter released by the office of Florida Republican Marco Rubio.
“If true, this reported plan is deeply troubling and risks making Google complicit in human rights abuses related to China’s rigorous censorship regime,” the letter read.
The project has caused internal tensions, according to The Washington Post, which noted 1,400 employees signed an internal letter questioning the project.
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