Google browser on smartphone

Google’s CEO admits details of censored search app for China

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai has publicly acknowledged the company’s leaked plans to create a censored search app for China and said that it found that it could “serve well over 99 per cent of queries.”

Speaking during Wired’s 25th Anniversary summit in San Francisco on Monday night, Pichai said the company started the internal project – known as Project Dragonfly – to see how a Chinese search app could work, with a product that would block search results for queries that the Chinese government deemed sensitive, such as “human rights” and “student protest.”

“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.”

He used an example of how Google could provide better information about cancer treatment, referencing a 2016 case, where Chinese regulators investigated domestic search giant Baidu when a college student died after finding “distorted” information about cancer treatment online.

Pichai said: “Things like that weigh heavily on us, so we want to balance that with what conditions would be. We are very early: we don't know whether we could or would do this in China, but we felt it was important for us to explore. I take a long-term view on this and I think it's important for us, given how many users there are, to think hard about this problem.”

However, the new search project has drawn criticism from Google’s own workforce, with a handful of employees having reportedly quit over the initiative. Also, human rights groups and US politicians have called on Google to cancel its plans and hundreds of Google employees signed a letter saying that it raised “urgent moral and ethical issues.”

Late last month, research scientist Jack Poulson publicly resigned from the company and has spoken out about the project to re-launch a search product in China, describing it 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.”

Pichai said at the summit that, in any country that Google operates, it must balance its values - “providing users access to information, freedom of expression, and user privacy” - with obeying the local laws.

Google initially withdrew its search service from China back in 2010 due to increasing concerns regarding censorship and cyber-attacks, which resulted in losing a large market of 772 million internet users there.

In subsequent years, China has increasingly restricted what its citizens can or cannot do online, such as removing foreign TV shows from online platforms and requiring people who use online forums to register with their real names.

In August 2018, it was reported that Google were planning to launch a version of its search engine tailored to China’s strict internet censorship laws.

August also saw China launch an online platform designed to eradicate ‘online rumours’, as Beijing ramped up efforts to increase the presence of its state-sponsored news agenda.

In related news from the Californian search giant, Google has said in a statement that cloud chief executive Diane Greene has dropped out of a Saudi Arabian investment event held in its capital, following accusations that the government there is behind the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“We can confirm Diane Greene will not be attending the Future Investment Initiative (FII) Summit,” said a Google spokesperson in a written statement, with Greene herself not offering any further explanation behind her decision.

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