Google CEO: No current plans to launch search engine for China

Google CEO Sundar Pichai downplayed the controversy over the company's work on a search engine for China, telling lawmakers repeatedly Tuesday that there were no plans to launch the project.

Pichai would only describe the program as an internal Google project during his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, sidestepping larger questions about Google's Dragonfly project.

"It’s a limited effort internally currently," Pichai told lawmakers during an intense grilling before Congress.

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Dragonfly has been the subject of widespread criticism as human rights activists, lawmakers and Google employees raise ethical concerns about building a search engine that could contribute to Chinese state censorship and surveillance.

Protesters outside the hearing room held up a sign that read "stop Google censorship" inside a Chinese flag. 

Pichai said several times during the hearing that there are no plans to launch the project.

"We have explored what search could look like if it were launched in a country like China," Pichai said during the hearing, adding that the work had been "underway for a while."

"At one point we have had over 100 people working on it, is my understanding," he said.

But he sidestepped questions from Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineDem lawmaker: 'Quite clear' Trump committed impeachable offenses Dem lawmaker shares threatening voicemail he received after speaking out on the Mueller report Dems attack Barr's credibility after report of White House briefings on Mueller findings MORE (D-R.I.) over whether Google has met with members of China's Communist Party as the company explores the possibility of creating the search engine.

"Are there any current discussions with members of the Chinese government about this?" Cicilline asked.

"This effort currently is an internal effort, and I’m happy to ... be transparent to the extent we take steps towards launching a product in China," Pichai responded. 

"Will you, Mr. Pichai, rule out launching a tool for surveillance and censorship in China while you are CEO at Google?" Cicilline later asked.

"One of the things that is important to us as a company ... we think it’s in our duty to explore possibilities, to give users access to information. I have that commitment," Pichai responded. "We’ll be very thoughtful and we will engage widely as we make progress."

An investigation by The Intercept published earlier this year found that Dragonfly would comply with China's censorship rules that stifle speech and dissent.

A group of Google employees last month signed an open letter calling for the company to halt Dragonfly, sounding the alarm over the search engine's possible suppression of minorities, students and activists in China.

Vice President Pence has also spoken out against the proposed search engine, saying it could support the Communist Party of China.

"This goes beyond Google, and frankly beyond China," Cicilline said at the hearing. "At a moment of rising authoritarianism around the world, when more leaders are using surveillance, censorship and repression against their own people, we’re in a moment that we must reassert American moral leadership."

Updated at 1:23 p.m.