Google CEO Won’t Rule Out Launching Censorship, Surveillance App in China

By Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
December 11, 2018 Updated: December 12, 2018

Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google, didn’t rule out launching a censorship and surveillance tool in China, but indicated the company will be transparent and “thoughtful” about any such plans.

Pichai had indicated that Google is still working on a search app for the Chinese market, a project that some company employees claim will include censorship and surveillance features. However, he said the launch of such a product isn’t imminent.

“We have undertaken an internal effort, but right now, there are no plans to launch a search service in China,” Pichai said, while testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 11.

Google has faced enduring criticism after information leaked that it was secretly developing the censored app as part of a project dubbed “Dragonfly.” Lawmakers, human-rights advocates, and even some employees protested against the project.

The communist regime in China requires companies, even those that are foreign, to censor topics it deems to be “sensitive,” such as democracy, human rights, and the ongoing persecution in China of Falun Gong practitioners, underground Christians, human-rights activists, and others. Companies are also forced to share with the regime any of their data stored in China.

According to insider information leaked to the Intercept, the controversial Google app was designed to link users’ search history with their phone numbers, making it easier for the regime to target dissidents.

Pichai appeared to deny the company is in discussions with Chinese officials regarding Dragonfly, when asked by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.). However, his response suggests the project is ongoing.

“This effort, currently, is an internal effort,” he said.

Pichai wouldn’t confirm who is leading the Dragonfly project.

“Our efforts around building search, you know, it’s undertaken by our search teams, but these are distributed efforts,” he said. “It’s a limited effort internally, currently.”

Finally, when asked whether he’d rule out “launching a tool for surveillance and censorship in China” while CEO of Google, Pichai responded:

“Congressman, I commit to engaging. One of the things which is important to us as a company, we have a stated mission of providing users with information and so we always … We think it’s in our duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information and, you know, I have that commitment but, you know, as I said earlier on this, we’ll be very thoughtful and we will engage widely as we make progress.”

Google ran a censored version of its search engine in China from 2006 to 2010, but exited after the company said a cyber attack originating from China had targeted Google email accounts of dozens of Chinese human-rights activists.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was born in Soviet Russia, said in 2010, he saw “some earmarks of totalitarianism” in China, which was “personally quite troubling” to him, The Wall Street Journal reported. “People familiar with the discussions” said then-Chief Executive Eric Schmidt and others advocated for staying in China.

China is one of the worst abusers of human rights, according to watchdogs. In recent decades, the regime has killed hundreds of thousands of prisoners of conscience to sell their organs for transplants, based on extensive research conducted since allegations of the crime first surfaced in 2006.

Aside from its stated reason, Google also had an economic incentive to exit China. The company struggled to expand its claim on the Chinese market, where the regime favors domestic companies with top cadre connections.

In an Aug. 31 letter to several U.S. senators, Pichai outlined the company’s wish to expand its China business, while finding a “balance” between satisfying the demands of the communist regime and the company’s stated dedication to freedom of expression.

Political Bias Refuted

While Pichai has denied any political bias in Google products, several Republican lawmakers appeared unsatisfied with his answers.

“You’ve got almost 90,000 employees. Somebody out there is doing something that just isn’t working, if you’re looking for unbiased results,” said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio).

On Dec. 10, Breitbart published what appears to be leaked internal emails that show Google employees discussing efforts to kick the conservative outlet off the Google advertising platform. Based on the emails, the employees organized to comb through Breitbart content around February 2017 to find anything that could be classified as “hate speech,” including in user comments posted on Breitbart’s website.

A Google spokeswoman told Breitbart that the company “regularly and routinely” reviews sites in its ad network “to ensure compliance with our policies.”

“These emails from early 2017 simply show the AdSense team explaining that such a periodic review was underway,” she said.

Yet, the emails suggest it was more than just “a periodic review,” since the effort appears to have been organized through an internal discussion group called “Resist”—a common label used by opponents of the agenda of President Donald Trump.

“I’m not aware of any such group,” Pichai said, when asked about the matter by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).

Breitbart would understandably be hard-pressed to survive without Google ads as about two-fifths of all U.S. online advertising revenues flow through the tech giant.

In August, President Donald Trump accused Google of shutting out “Republican/Conservative” and “Fair Media” from Google News searches, referring to a PJ Media report that among the top 100 search results for “Trump” on Google News, 96 percent of them were from left-leaning media.

The Epoch Times conducted a similar experiment on at least three dates, reaching similar results. In the last test on Nov. 28, some 97 percent of the 154 articles featured on the first 10 pages of search results for “Trump” came from traditionally left-leaning media.

Pichai disputed bias in the news search.

“We have looked at results on our Top News category. We find we have a wide variety of sources, including sources from the left and sources from the right,” he said.

Google didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Correction: A previous version of this report incorrectly stated two-fifths of Breitbart’s U.S. online advertising revenues flow through Google. Two-fifths of all U.S. online advertising revenues flow through Google. The Epoch Times regrets the error.

Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.