The search giant’s top executive was grilled on the topic by members of Congress before the House Judiciary Committee today.

During a grueling 3.5 hour congressional committee hearing today, Google CEO Sundar Pichai faced some tough questions around his company’s controversial project to build a censored search product in China.

Pichai could have used the opportunity to publicly scrap plans to build a version of his company’s core tool, code-named Dragonfly, that would block terms such as “human rights,” “Nobel Prize” and “student protest” from search results in China.

But when House Rep. David Cicilline asked Pichai point blank if, as CEO, he would rule out launching a “tool for surveillance and censorship in China,” Pichai deflected.

“One of the things that’s important to us as a company, we have a stated mission of providing users with information, and so we always think it’s in our duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information,” said Pichai in response.

“As I’ve said earlier on this, we’ll be very thoughtful and we will engage widely as we make progress,” he added.

This response isn’t reassuring to critics who say that Project Dragonfly will enable the Chinese government to block its citizens from accessing information it doesn’t like and surveil its political opponents. In advance of the hearing, 60 groups including dozens of leading human rights organizations signed a letter calling on Pichai to drop all design and development of the tool.

Instead, Pichai’s response reaffirms the CEO’s interpretation of Google’s mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” in bringing search to the world’s most populous country — even if that means putting political restrictions on the type of information that’s made accessible.

We also learned some new information about the scope of the project from the hearing. Pichai confirmed that it’s been “under way for a while” and at one point over 100 people were working on it. This presents a contradiction — if, as Pichai stated today, Google right now has “no plans to launch a search service in China” and the project is an experiment, then why have so many people been working on it? And why not commit to stopping its development in light of human rights concerns?

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to hear Pichai go into more detail on the topic since members of the House Judiciary Committee spent a significant portion of their time asking about alleged anti-conservative bias, data privacy and other issues.

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Shirin Ghaffary

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