For the past several weeks, there has been an internal and external uproar about Project Dragonfly, Google’s rumored attempt to return to China with a censored search engine and other products. CEO Sundar Pichai this evening gave his first public comments on the matter, calling Dragonfly an exploration at what Google in China could look like after eight years.
Interviewed by Steven Levy at the Wired 25 conference, Sundar Pichai started by recapping Google’s entrance in 2006 and the end of the first search engine in 2010. The CEO disagrees with the idea that Google “exited” the country, highlighting it has engineers and that Android is a popular operating system there, even if devices sold do not feature Google Play services.
Pichai goes on to describe that Google is “always balancing a set of values” when it enters a new country.
“We are providing users access to information, freedom of expression, user privacy, but we also follow the rule of law in every country.”
That said, he calls Dragonfly an internal project that comes eight years since its last attempt at offering search. This public comment echoes what Googlers have been told by Pichai and Sergey Brin at an internal company-wide meeting in August.
“We wanted to learn what it would look like if Google were in China. That’s what we built internally. If Google were to operate in China, what would it look like.”
In recent weeks, leaks from within the company have revealed that in addition to a censored Search engine that follows government rules, there could also be a Google News-like product that leverages artificial intelligence and abides by the same filters.
Google believes that it could offer a superior search product than its competitors and be able to serve “well over 99% of queries.” Pichai also noted more useful results, providing cancer treatments as an example.
“What queries would we be able to serve? It turns out we would be able to serve well over 99% of the queries, and there are many, many areas where we would provide information better than what’s available.”
Pichai ends on noting the balance of principles and iterating Google’s core mission of providing information to everyone, with China making up 20% of the world’s population. The CEO also repeats that it’s still early, in contrast to reports that say Google’s project is further along.
“We want to balance with what the conditions would be. It’s very early, we don’t know whether we would or could do this in China, but we felt that it was important for us to explore. I take a long-term view on this, I think it’s important for us given how important the market is, and how many users there are. We feel obliged to think hard about this problem and take a long view.”