Congress Challenges Google on China. Google Falls Short

Google’s first public attempt to explain its reported interest in entering the Chinese market failed to appease critical members of Congress at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday.

The hearing, which was attended by Google, as well as by Amazon, Apple, AT&T, and Charter Communications, began as a broad discussion of possible privacy legislation. But it concluded as a pointed condemnation of Google over recent reports that the company is building a censored search engine for China. According to The Intercept, the plans, dubbed internally as Project Dragonfly, would require Chinese users to log in to search and would feed crucial data to a Chinese company.

Google’s chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, came to the hearing prepared to give a carefully scripted explanation addressing these reports, remarks that would neither confirm nor deny their accuracy. “My understanding is we are not, in fact, close to launching a search product in China, and whether we would or could at some point in the future remains unclear,” Enright said when asked by Senator Maggie Hassan, Democrat of New Hampshire. If Google did choose to pursue any interests in China, he added, “my team would be actively engaged. Our privacy and security controls would be followed.”

Enright repeated the term “not close to launching” several more times throughout the hearing, before Senator Ted Cruz of Texas finally stopped him short. “You’re saying you’re not close to launching. I’m asking […] is [Project Dragonfly] a project to develop a search engine in China? I didn’t ask timing of launch. I asked what it is,” the Republican said.

Enright only went so far as to confirm that Project Dragonfly does in fact exist. But he declined to expound upon its purpose, insisting he was “not clear on the contours of what is in scope or out of scope for that project.”

That, of course, is the problem. It’s not just that Enright came off as cagey. The far bigger issue is that his claims about taking privacy seriously and not knowing much about the project can’t peacefully coexist. If Google’s chief privacy officer isn’t actively engaged in these conversations, it undermines the idea that Google is carefully considering the ramifications of this work.

It’s not as if Google is unfamiliar with the stakes. The company has seen firsthand what requirements imposed by the Chinese government on foreign tech firms. In 2010, Google decided to stop censoring search in the country, after a Gmail phishing attack targeted Chinese human rights activists. The questions of whether to censor search in China and give data to Chinese entities are, first and foremost, privacy questions.

Yet in his testimony, Enright tried to frame the issues as distinct. “I wouldn’t think it was necessarily appropriate for a privacy conversation to speculate as to what we might be looking at in terms of a product launch in some part of the world,” Enright told Cruz in response to questions about Project Dragonfly.

Google was hardly the only business at the hearing to face questions about China. Senator Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado, asked Apple’s vice president of software whether the company upholds its human rights and privacy standards there. He also cornered Amazon on its work with a Chinese subsidiary. The committee members, arguably, should have pressed these companies harder. But Google, whose supposed plans in China have dominated recent headlines, got the brunt of the backlash.

Before Wednesday’s hearing, a former Google research scientist named Jack Poulson sent a letter to the committee’s chairman and ranking member, encouraging them to focus their questioning on Project Dragonfly. In the letter, first reported by The Intercept, Poulson calls on the committee to ask about what he describes as “a catastrophic failure of the internal privacy review process, which one of the reviewers characterized as actively subverted.”

If Google is indeed considering building such a search tool for China—and, to be clear, Enright never once denied that it is—then the idea that the company’s privacy team wouldn’t be intimately involved seems at best short-sighted, and reckless at worst. It’s also just bad optics considering how frustrated members of Congress on both sides of the aisle were with Google during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing earlier this month. The company had refused to send either Google CEO Sundar Pichai or Larry Page, CEO of Google’s parent Alphabet, to testify. Instead, senators including Marco Rubio of Florida and Tom Cotton of Arkansas stared down an empty chair with a Google name plate in front of it, as they attacked Google for pursuing business in China. (This week, Pichai is heading to Capitol Hill to make nice with members of Congress, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who recently have accused the search giant of liberal bias.)

Enright’s vague responses echo answers Pichai put forth in a letter to the intelligence committee before the last hearing. The letter was a response to a bipartisan group of senators’ questions about Google’s work in China. But Pichai offered up few specifics. “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,” he wrote. “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.”

Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told WIRED he was “disappointed” in Pichai’s answers in August. “Any effort to get back into China could enable the Chinese government in repressing and manipulating their citizens,” Warner said at the time. “Google owes the public some answers about its reported plans.”

Those are answers Enright failed to provide.

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