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Alphabet Chairman John Hennessy is conflicted about what Google's strategy should be in China.
"Anybody who does business in China compromises some of their core values," Hennessy said in an interview this week with Bloomberg. It's true for every company "because the laws in China are quite a bit different than they are in our own country," he said.
Since details of Google's project to create a censored search app for the Chinese market leaked this summer, human rights groups and U.S. politicians have called on the company to cancel its plans, while thousands of Google employees signed a letter saying that it raised "urgent moral and ethical issues."
The company initially withdrew its search service from the country in 2010 due to increased concerns about cyberattacks and censorship. In the time since, the Chinese government has increasingly curtailed what its citizens can or and can't do online by blacklisting websites and access to information about certain historical events — like the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square — and requiring people who use online forums to register with their real names.
Google's Chinese search app would have reportedly complied with demands to remove content that the government ruled sensitive and linked users' searches to their personal phone numbers. Critics say that by cooperating with the Chinese government, Google would have violated principles of free expression as well as users' privacy rights.
Hennessy, like Google CEO Sundar Pichai, framed the company's consideration of a censored search product through the lens of it being a better option than current domestic products, like the local search engine Baidu.
"The question that I think comes to my mind then, that I struggle with, is are we better off giving Chinese citizens a decent search engine, a capable search engine even if it is restricted and censored in some cases, than a search engine that's not very good?" Hennessy said. "And does that improve the quality of their lives?"
Hennessy, a former president of Stanford University, said that he didn't have a good answer.
There's no doubt it's a big market. As of August, China had 800 million internet users.
Pichai has repeatedly said that Google's plans for a censored search app in China are in their "early stages," and recently equated them with how the company must follow "right-to-be-forgotten laws" in Europe. Critics called it a false comparison.
Pichai has also said that in any country where Google operates, it must balance its values — "providing users access to information, freedom of expression and user privacy" — with obeying the local laws.