Eight years ago, when Google announced that it would pull out of China, the company released a statement explaining that the Chinese government had been “crystal clear” that “self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement” for operating in the country.
But now that the firm is considering a relaunch in China with a new search platform, an initiative codenamed Project Dragonfly, Google is hedging on whether they believe the Chinese government censors its citizens.
Keith Enright, Google’s chief privacy officer, discussed the China project under questioning from several senators during a commerce committee hearing on Wednesday.
“In your opinion, does China engage in censoring its citizens?” asked Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, during the hearing.
“As the privacy representative of Google,” said Enright, “I am not sure I have an informed opinion on that question.”
China is one of the most restrictive regimes in the world for political speech. The country is widely known for forcing internet firms to censor language and content that they deem offensive or politically sensitive. Human Rights Watch says China “oversees one of the strictest online censorship regimes in the world.”
Google operated in China from 2006 through 2010, but left the country because the Chinese government was found to be hacking the Gmail accounts of dissidents and engaging in widespread censorship. “Our objection is to those forces of totalitarianism,” said Google co-founder Sergey Brin at the time, explaining the departure from China. Since then, censorship and surveillance in the country has only become more pervasive.
Senators have been eager to hear from Google about China since news of the company’s plans to resume censored search in the country were first reported by The Intercept last month. A bipartisan group of six of them raised concerns and questions in a letter to the company in August. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., a signatory to the letter, had planned to question Google CEO Sundar Pichai about the China project at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing earlier this month, but Pichai refused to appear. Google has also refused to answer questions about its censored search plans from the press and human rights groups.
The relaunch of Google search in China has been under development since spring 2017. Individuals working on the project have said that Dragonfly has been designed to automatically block content when users search terms such as “Nobel Prize,” “human rights,” and phrases tied to the Tiananmen Square massacre. In late July, staff were told to get the project into a “launch-ready state” within weeks, in case Chinese officials gave their approvals.
During the hearing yesterday, Enright repeatedly gave the same talking point, describing Dragonfly simply as a project whose status remains “unclear.” He delivered nearly identical lines to both Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., when asked about the China search engine project.
When Enright gave the same line to Cruz, the Texas senator chortled that the Google executive was not responding to his actual questions.
Finally, Enright relented, and at least confirmed the existence of Dragonfly, though he said he could not explain the “contours of what is in scope or what is out of scope for that project.”