Sundar Pichai makes case for a potential move into China by saying Google already censors information elsewhere

Key Points
  • In a New York Times interview, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said when the company follow's Europe's "right to be forgotten" laws, "we are censoring search results because we're complying with the law."
  • Google faced internal and public backlash earlier this year when the Intercept reported the company was working on a censored version of its search engine in China.
  • Europe's "right to be forgotten" laws generally focus on the right to request a company delete personal data in some circumstances, while the Chinese government is known to censor factual historical information.
Sundar Pichai speaks at the 4th World Internet Conference on December 3, 2017 in Wuzhen, China.
Du Yang | VCG | Getty Images

Google CEO Sundar Pichai offered a new justification for the company's exploration of a censored version of its search engine for people in China: it already censors information elsewhere.

In a New York Times interview published Thursday, Pichai compared Europe's "right to be forgotten laws" to censorship when asked about launching a search product in China.

"One of the things that's not well understood, I think, is that we operate in many countries where there is censorship. When we follow 'right to be forgotten' laws, we are censoring search results because we're complying with the law," Pichai told the Times.

Google has been grappling with how it could reach China's 800 million Internet users since it withdrew its service in 2010 amid censorship and security concerns. Earlier this year, Google faced backlash both internally and from the public when the Intercept reported its apparent plans to build a censored version of its search engine in China.

Europe's "right to be forgotten" laws are distinct in important ways from censorship of information by the Chinese government.

While "right to be forgotten" laws mainly center on the right of individuals to request personal data be deleted from the internet or search results, the Chinese government has been found to suppress factual information that would not be subject to the "right to be forgotten" laws.

Through tight control over its media and internet access, China has created the "Great Firewall" that prevents people living there from accessing certain websites or searching some historical events, like the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The "right to be forgotten" came from a 2014 case decided against Google by the European Court of Justice. The case centered around a Spanish man who wanted Google to remove an old newspaper article about a real estate auction the government ordered to recover his social security debts. The court decided that Google had to remove the article from its index even though the newspaper could keep it on its site.

Now, the "right to be forgotten" is codified in the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which went into effect earlier this year. Under this part of the regulation, EU citizens have the right to request that internet businesses delete certain personal data under some circumstances.

Pichai told the Times he's not convinced that a Chinese search engine would be Google's top priority.

"I'm committed to serving users in China," he said. "Whatever form it takes, I actually don't know the answer. It's not even clear to me that search in China is the product we need to do today."

A Google spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

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