Google has “no plans” to relaunch a search engine in China though it is continuing to study the idea, chief executive officer Sundar Pichai told a U.S. congressional panel on Tuesday amid increased scrutiny of big tech firms.
Lawmakers and Google employees have raised concerns the company would comply with China’s internet censorship and surveillance policies if it re-enters the Asian nation’s search engine market.
Google’s main search platform has been blocked in China since 2010, but the Alphabet Inc. unit has been attempting to make new inroads into the country, which has the world’s largest number of smartphone users.
“Right now, there are no plans to launch search in China,” Pichai told the U.S. House of Representatives judiciary committee.
But he added that Google has “developed and looked at what search could look like. We’ve had the project underway for a while. At one point, we’ve had over 100 people working on it, is my understanding.”
Promise of transparency
Pichai said there are no current discussions with the Chinese government. He vowed that he would be “fully transparent” with policymakers if the company brings search products to China.
In a letter in August to U.S. lawmakers, Pichai said providing such a search engine would give “broad benefits” to China but that it was unclear whether Google could launch the service there.
A Chinese government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters last month that it was unlikely Google would get clearance to launch a search service in 2019.
Pichai did not say what steps Google would take to comply with Chinese laws if it re-entered the market.
Under questioning from Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, Pichai said he would “happy to engage” to discuss legislation that would empower the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to address discriminatory conduct online.
Cicilline told Pichai it was “hard for me to imagine that you could operate in the Chinese market under the current government framework and maintain a commitment to universal values such as freedom of expression and personal privacy.”
The company’s rivals in shopping and travel searches have long complained about being demoted in Google search results.
Denying ‘partisan activities’
Much of the House hearing focused on Republican concerns that Google’s search results are biased against conservatives and that the company had sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
Democrats rejected that claim as “fantasy,” and at least one said the search results highlighted more conservative voices.
Pichai said the search engine attempts to help people register to vote or find a polling place, but rejected assertions the company paid for Latino voters’ transportation to polls in some states.
“We don’t engage in partisan activities,” Pichai told the panel.
U.S. President Donald Trump has accused Google of rigging the results of its dominant search engine to suppress conservative viewpoints and highlight coverage from media that he says distribute “fake news.”
The company has denied any political bias, and there’s no evidence of an anti-conservative tilt. Pichai said in his written testimony that “I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way. To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests.”
Google has good reason to communicate with lawmakers and policy-makers and to seek to weigh in on thorny issues. Trump and some lawmakers have raised the possibility of asking regulators to investigate whether Google — which handles nearly two of every three online searches in the U.S. — has abused its clout as a major gateway to the internet to stifle competition.
And momentum is building in Congress for legislation to put stricter limits and privacy protections around the big tech companies’ collection of data. With the Democrats having captured control of the House in the midterm elections and poised to take over as the majority running the judiciary committee next month, tougher legislation could be in the offing.
Pichai, a former engineer, took the helm of Google in 2015 in a major restructuring that made Google a division of conglomerate Alphabet Inc. — whose businesses include Waymo, a self-driving technology development company.
Bolstering the dominance of its search engine, Google’s Android operating system runs most of the world’s smartphones, and its other services — including Gmail, YouTube, online ads and the Chrome web browser — are widely used.
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