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Google CEO doesn't rule out censored search engine in China

By Nicholas Sakelaris and Danielle Haynes   |   Updated Dec. 11, 2018 at 1:59 PM

Dec. 11 (UPI) -- Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Thursday said there were no plans to launch search in China, but wouldn't promise House lawmakers the company wouldn't develop a censored search engine there.

The Silicon Valley executive's testimony was part of a hearing before the House judiciary committee about potential political biases and future plans in China.

"Right now there are no plans to launch search in China," Pichai said, adding that if there were a future effort, Google would be "transparent" about it.

"We think it's in our duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information," he added.

In their questioning, Republicans expressed concern about search results that may be tilted against conservatives.

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"All of these topics -- competition, censorship, bias and others -- point to one fundamental question that demands the nation's attention," House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said. "Are America's technology companies serving as instruments of freedom or instruments of control?"

President Donald Trump has in the past accused Google and other tech companies of pushing a liberal bias, suppression and censorship. In August, he said search results for news were "rigged for me and others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD."

Pichai denied accusations of bias in his remarks Tuesday.

"I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way," the India-born Pichai said in a prepared statement. "To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests. We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions -- and we have no shortage of them among our own employees."

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said Pro-Trump articles or content about immigration laws gets flagged as hate speech, and not a single right-leaning site appeared on the first page of the search results. He called for an independent third-party group to look into the matter.

Pichai said Google has already had independent groups evaluate the search algorithms. He was also asked about privacy and how Google handles personal data -- the same questions executives at Twitter and Facebook faced from lawmakers earlier this year. That includes the Google+ breach revealed Monday, in which the data of 52 million users may have been accessible to developers.

Panel Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlattee, R-Va., said people have put their trust in tech companies to honor freedom of speech and affirm open dialogue.

"Google is able to collect an amount of information about its users that would even make the NSA blush," Goodlatte said. "Americans have no idea the sheer volume of information that is collected."

Pichai said Google "takes privacy seriously" and notified users when it learned of the data breach. He said the notification is supposed to come within 72 hours, but no one was notified until several months later.

Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., countered by pointing out that MSNBC didn't appear near the top of search results -- but links to multiple ultra-conservative sites did.

Ultimately, testimony from Google and other tech majors could change the way Silicon Valley is regulated. Pichai and Larry Page, who leads Google parent company Alphabet, did not appear in the Senate earlier this year when they were called for a hearing. Senators made their feelings known by putting empty chairs with the executives' names on them in the room.

"[Google] has been desperately avoiding oversight," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said. "In effect, they wanted to avoid the spotlight and leave it to Facebook, which has been their M.O. They just try to keep their heads down and avoid any scrutiny."