Google dodges questions about China during Senate privacy hearing

  • At a Senate hearing on data privacy on Wednesday, multiple senators asked Google's chief privacy officer Keith Enright about the company's plans to launch a censored search app in China.
  • Enright declined to specifically comment on how Google's policies on protecting user privacy would square with leaked details that the proposed app would link users' to their search queries by personal phone numbers.
Keith Enright testifies at a Senate hearing on data privacy 
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Keith Enright testifies at a Senate hearing on data privacy 

Google's chief privacy officer Keith Enright dodged multiple questions about the company's plans to launch a censored search app in China during a senate hearing on data privacy on Wednesday.

Senators pressed Enright on how Google's policies on protecting user privacy would square with details that have leaked out about a proposed Chinese search app, including that it was designed to link users' searches to their personal phone numbers.

In response to a question from Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., Enright echoed comments previously made internally by Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

"I will say that my understanding is that 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," he said. "If we were, in fact, to finalize a plan to launch a search product in China, my team would be actively engaged."

Enright declined to any more specifically address privacy implications of the proposed app, or whether it could be used to suppress human rights.

Last month, The Intercept first broke the news of a prospective search app the company had developed for use in China, reportedly known as "Project Dragonfly" internally. Since then, human rights groups have called on Google to cancel its plans and hundreds of Google employees signed a letter saying that it raised "urgent moral and ethical issues." The app would reportedly block search results for queries that the Chinese government deemed sensitive, like "human rights" and "student protest."

Earlier this month, The Intercept reported that Google scrambled to delete an internal memo circulated among Google employees that indicated that employees working on the project were told in late July to prepare to get it in "launch-ready state" to roll out upon approval from Beijing officials.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked Enright directly if Project Dragonfly existed, and what it was.

Enright replied that efforts of that name did exist, but that he was "not clear on the contours of what is in scope or out of the scope of that project."

Cruz then asked whether he thought that the Chinese government censors what its citizens see.

"As the privacy representative of Google I'm not sure that have an informed opinion on that question," Enright said.

Google initially withdrew its search service from China in 2010 due to increased concerns about censorship and cyber attacks, subsequently losing access to the enormous market of 772 million internet users there. Since, China has increasingly curtailed what its citizens can or cannot do online, like removing foreign TV shows from online platforms and requiring people who use online forums to register with their real names.

Aside from questions about China, Enright was asked about whether or not Google's search results were biased (he said no) or whether it supported data protection legislation (he said yes).

Representatives from Amazon, Apple, Twitter, AT&T, and Charter Communications also attended the hearing.