Sundar Pichai, who has been vocal about his desire to take Google to China again, is taking a stance at odds with the beliefs of the founders.
Google staff awoke on Wednesday to surprising news: Their company is working on a search app tailored and censored, for China. The project, kept secret from all but select teams and leaders, sparked a furious internal debate.
Yet the move couldn’t have been entirely surprising for Googlers.
Sundar Pichai, 46, chief executive officer since 2015, has made no secret of his desire to take the search giant back to mainland China. The executive is more pragmatic about the world’s largest internet market than Google’s founders, who pulled search from the mainland in 2010 over censorship concerns.
Under Pichai, Google has invested in Chinese companies, met with its leaders and made it a priority to spread Google’s artificial intelligence technology across the country. But bringing search back would be Pichai’s boldest move yet and will put his personal stamp firmly on the company.
Co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin built Google to “organize the world’s information and make it universally available.” They viewed China as a threat to the company’s stance as a defender of the open web. Pichai, in contrast, sees China as a hotbed of engineering talent and an appealing market.
Pichai’s new leadership style and priorities haven’t always sat well with the Google rank and file. Within hours of the China search news breaking, several staff members privately criticized the plans. Two employees who spoke to Bloomberg News compared it to Project Maven, a Google AI contract with the Pentagon that sparked an internal revolt earlier this year. The company is not renewing that deal.
“Giving benefit of the doubt until we learn more. But reading how @Google has plans to help #China set up a censored search engine is very disturbing,” US senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, tweeted. “They won’t help @DeptofDefense keep us safe but they will help China suppress the truth?”
Another person who has seen some early examples of the Chinese search app, code-named Dragonfly, described it as a “censorship engine.” People trust Google to share true information and the Chinese search app is a betrayal of that, the employee said. The Google workers asked not to be identified because they’re not permitted to discuss internal matters.
One employee transferred to a different role at the company because of ethical concerns with Dragonfly, according to an internal message. An unnamed company vice president asked to keep details of the project private so they would not leak to the public, the internal message read.
Google said that the company does not “comment on speculation about future plans” and declined to comment further. In 2010, Brin, now president of parent Alphabet Inc, told the Wall Street Journal, that China’s policies of censorship and surveillance have the “same earmarks of totalitarianism” as Soviet Russia, where he was born. Brin did not respond to an email requesting comment.>