Sundar Pichai testifies before Congress

‘No plans’ to launch censored Chinese search engine, says Google CEO

Image credit: REUTERS/Jim Young

In a long-awaited appearance before Congress, Google CEO Sundar Pichai responded to questions from lawmakers about claims of political bias and concerns about the possibility of a censored Chinese search engine.

Pichai – who became CEO of Google in 2015 – testified before the US House Judiciary Committee for three and a half hours in a morning session. Google had previously failed to send a representative to a US Senate Intelligence committee hearing investigating meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

In recent months, Google has been under attack by conservative figures – including President Trump himself – for allegedly displaying search results with a liberal bias and influencing the result of the 2016 election. Pichai faced extensive questioning from Republican lawmakers on these unsubstantiated claims, and stated that the company does not engage in “partisan activities” and that he leads “without political bias”.

Republican representative Lamar Smith claimed to have “irrefutable” evidence that Google had produced search results with a liberal bias, a claim that Democrats derided as a “fantasy” and which emerged to be based on thoroughly debunked statistics.

“It is not possible for an individual employee to manipulate our search results,” Pichai told Smith. When asked why photographs of President Trump appear as top Google results when the word “idiot” is searched for, Pichai explained Google’s indexing process to the lawmakers in simple terms.

Pichai said that the company had helped people register to vote and find out where to vote, but rejected allegations that it had paid for Latino voters’ (who are statistically more likely to vote Democrat) transportation to polling stations.

Some lawmakers appeared ill-prepared for the questioning, with Republican Steven King interrogating Pichai about the behaviour of his granddaughter’s iPhone and Republican Ted Poe demanding that Pichai reveal whether Google could track the location of his phone. Meanwhile, a number of Democratic representatives spent their time defending Google from Republican claims of political bias.

Pichai was also questioned about the possibility of Google preparing a search engine for the Chinese market through its ‘Dragonfly’ project. Google and many other leading websites are blocked by the country’s strict internet censors, meaning that a Google search engine launching in the country would be required to adhere to this political censorship, blocking results for queries deemed sensitive, such as “human rights”.

Google’s work on such a search engine has provoked the resignation of one senior scientist and an open letter published online and signed by approximately 1,400 staff objecting to the project. Responding to questions from lawmakers, Pichai said that the company had “no plans” to launch a censored version of its search engine in China and that the company was not in discussion with the Chinese government, although he acknowledged that over 100 Google staff had been working on Dragonfly.

“We have developed and explored what search could look like if we launched in a country like China,” said Pichai. “We have had the project under way for a while, and there have been other projects we have undertaken and never launched them too.

“Right now, there are no plans to launch search in China.”

Pichai agreed that the company would be “fully transparent” with the government if it decides to launch a search engine in China.

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