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Google CEO Sundar Pichai Finally Opens Up About That Censored Search Service For China

October 16, 2018, 8:37 AM UTC

Google has finally publicly discussed the existence of Project Dragonfly—a censored search engine that may be rolled out for the Chinese market.

The project’s existence was previously disclosed through leaks that sparked a firestorm inside and outside the company, with employees outraged at the ethical implications—Google (GOOGL) pulled out of China in 2010, largely due to censorship requirements—and the Trump White House urging the company to kill the scheme.

Google’s chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, confirmed Dragonfly’s existence under questioning by the Senate Commerce Committee last month, but did not give any details. Google Search chief Ben Gomes also told the BBC at the time: “Right now all we’ve done is some exploration, but since we don’t have any plans to launch something there’s nothing much I can say about it.”

However, Google CEO Sundar Pichai discussed Dragonfly Monday while onstage at the Wired 25 Summit. “It turns out we’ll be able to serve well over 99% of the queries,” he enthused.

The search app would essentially enforce the restrictions laid down under China’s “Great Firewall” censorship mechanism, which means the censorship of information relating to human rights and sex, among other things, as well as publications ranging from the BBC to the New York Times.

Like Gomes, Pichai said Dragonfly was an exploratory internal project. “We wanted to learn what it would look like if Google were in China,” the CEO said, according to CNN. “So that’s what we built internally. If Google were to operate in China, what would it look like?”

According to a report last week from The Intercept—the publication that originally broke the Dragonfly news—Gomes told employees in July that the company’s intention was to have a product that could be “brought off the shelf and quickly deployed” once the Chinese authorities gave it the green light.

Pichai said Monday that, if it was back in operation in China, Google would be able to give users there better information than they can currently get on subjects such as cancer. “Today people either get fake cancer treatments or they actually get useful information,” he said.

The Google chief also addressed the issue of Project Maven, which saw the company provide video-analysis “AI” technology to the Pentagon, for the processing of drone footage. Some Google employees resigned over that contract, and the outcry apparently led the company to decide not to renew the deal. It subsequently also passed on another Pentagon contract, involving the provision of cloud services.

According to Pichai, these decisions were not the result of employee pressure. “Throughout Google’s history, we’ve given our employees a lot of voice and say,” he said. “But we don’t we don’t run the company by holding referendums.” However, he acknowledged that there had been “debate within the AI community around how you perceive our work in this area.”