Saturday, 13 October 2018 06:12

Google chief avoids US pollies' queries on China search plan Featured

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Sundar Pichai: "We are thoughtfully considering a variety of options for how to offer services in China in a way that is consistent with our mission." Sundar Pichai: "We are thoughtfully considering a variety of options for how to offer services in China in a way that is consistent with our mission." Courtesy YouTube

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai has avoided answering pointed questions posed by six US senators about the company's plan to launch a censored search engine in China, instead resorting to broad generalities such as the claim that the move would have “broad benefits inside and outside of China".

In a response to a letter from the six politicians — which was obtained by The Intercept, the website that broke the story of Google's China plan — Pichai wrote: "Google has been open about our desire to increase our ability to serve users in China and other countries. We are thoughtfully considering a variety of options for how to offer services in China in a way that is consistent with our mission.

"We are committed to promoting access to information, freedom of expression, and user privacy, as well as to respecting the laws of jurisdictions in which we operate. We seek to strike the right balance in each context."

The US senators — Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Cory Gardner of Colorado, and Democrats Mark Warner of Virginia, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Robert Menendez of New Jersey — sent their letter to Pichai on 3 August, and asked for a "prompt reply".

They had asked the following questions:

  • "Is Google in the process of developing a censored search engine or other censored applications for China? If so, will this be part of a joint venture with a Chinese domestic partner?
  • "What has changed since 2010 to make Google comfortable cooperating with the rigorous censorship regime in China?
  • "In many cases, the entrance of a western firm in China is conditioned upon that firm entering a joint venture with a domestic Chinese ?rm. Was Google's decision to enter a joint venture with Tencent connected in any way with its efforts to enter the Chinese market via the custom search app?
  • "If Google is working on a search product for the mainland Chinese market, which 'blacklist' of censored searches and websites are you using? Are there any phrases or words that Google is refusing to censor?
  • "Will Google employees involved in managing 'Dragonfly' be required to attend the official mandatory trainings on 'Marxist news values' and 'socialist values' as required of other technology companies that provide Internet news content services in China?
  • "Presumably Google will comply with China's Cyber Security Law and its data localisation requirements. Will Google provide information about the search histories of individual users to Chinese government authorities? What confidence does Google have that its local joint venture partner will abide by any user protections that Google puts in place?"

Pichai did not deal with any of these queries. Instead, he characterised the project for the China search engine as a part of Google's Next Billion Users initiative, which was geared towards, "providing people in developing countries with customised products and solutions so they can use the power of the Internet and smartphones to better their lives".

In the two months since The Intercept's Ryan Gallagher broke the story, there have been a number of developments:

  • US Vice-President Mike Pence has called on Google to scrap the project;
  • Reported comments by Google search chief Ben Gomes have contradicted the company's public stance on the project;
  • There have been reports about internal unrest among Google employees over the project;
  • A letter about the "urgent moral and ethical issues" surrounding the project was sent around inside the company;
  • There have also been reports that managers at the company were trying to shut down access to any material connected to the project; and
  • Another report said that engineers had used search queries from a Chinese Web directory service owned by Google to develop blacklists for the censored search engine.

In his letter, Pichai said: "We recently released a few mobile apps in China, such as Google Translate for Chinese users. But Search and our other core services, such as Google Play, Google Cloud, and many more high-quality offerings remain generally unavailable."

And he added, "We hope to stay at the forefront of technology developments and believe that Google's tools could help to facilitate an exchange of information and learning that would have broad benefits inside and outside of China."

Gallagher sought a response from the six senators who sent the letter to Pichai and one of them, Warner, said he was disappointed with Google’s response which, he said, failed to provide any information.

“Any effort to get back into China could enable the Chinese Government in repressing and manipulating their citizens,” said Warner. “Google owes us some honest answers, or it risks losing the trust of Congress and the public.”

The Dragonfly project is said to have started after Pichai held discussions with Wang Huning, a senior figure in the Chinese Communist Party, in December 2017. Work was begun during the Western spring of 2017 and was fast-tracked after the Pichai-Huning meeting.

After the meeting with Huning, Google decided to open an artificial intelligence research centre in Beijing. In May 2018, a Google file management app was released for Chinese Internet users. And in July, Google released a “Guess The Sketch” game on WeChat, the main Chinese messaging and social media platform.

Programmers created a customised Android search app with different versions known as Maotai and Longfei and these were then demonstrated to Chinese Government authorities.

Since The Intercept's first report, Google has made no public statement about the project, though it has been asked for a statement on more than a dozen occasions.

The final version of the app is expected to be launched in the next six to nine months, provided approval is granted by Beijing.

Google had a censored search engine operating in China from 2006 to 2010, but quit the country after its servers were hacked.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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