Google CEO says he wants to reach the next billion users, but has no plans to relaunch in China

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(CNN) — Google was met with outrage last year when it was reported that the company may have been looking to get back into the search engine business in China. The company previously left China in protest over its strict censorship policies — which have only grown more strict.

After weeks of criticism, CEO Sundar Pichai said the company abandoned its plans to build a censored search engine, but speculation about whether Google was still angling to return to China has continued to swirl.

In an exclusive interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow, Pichai said Google is not actively working on a new Chinese search engine, though he acknowledged that Google isn’t about to ignore the country and its hundreds of millions of internet users.

“There are no plans for us to consider relaunching our service in China,” Pichai said. He added, “we have always looked at serving the next billion users….Our mission compass is to provide information.”

Google is committed to following international laws and regulations, he said. Though China doesn’t share Google’s value of a free and open internet, the company, reaching more users is “always a set of continued conversations we have at Google.”

Pichai said that Google would need the “right conditions” to relaunch in the country, and censorship-free internet is an “important condition” for making that decision. But he declined to share further details.

“I don’t want to speculate on a hypothetical situation,” he said. “We have no plans. And, you know, we are not spending time on it.”

It’s not just Google: China has long been a conundrum for tech companies, which are drawn to its massive user base and thriving online shopping market. But human rights abuses and tightening authority by the Communist Party of China over free speech and information has forced companies to grapple with ethical questions. According to the US State Department, since 2017, up to 2 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities have been held against their will in internment camps.

Harlow also asked Pichai to respond to US General Joseph Dunford’s claim that Google’s work in China “is a direct benefit” to the nation’s military.

Pichai said Google had “good conversations” about that controversy and said it has “cleared up any misunderstandings.”

“We are not doing any work in China. We have a limited presence in China,” he said. That includes “limited AI,” or artificial intelligence, work through an open-source project called TensorFlow, he said. The company also does “some nonprofit work,” Pichai said.

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