(Bloomberg) -- Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai told employees at a meeting that plans to re-enter China with a search engine are “exploratory” and in “early stages,” addressing a topic that has exploded with controversy. Google co-founder Sergey Brin also spoke to the staff Thursday at the company’s all-hands meeting, saying that Google isn’t compromising its principles.
The accounts came from two people familiar with the discussion at the meeting of the Alphabet Inc. unit. They asked not to be identified talking about private matters. Google didn’t respond to requests for comment. The discussion at the all-hands meeting was the first time Google executives addressed the company’s plans for a possible return to China.
“We are not close to launching a search product in China,” Pichai said, according to a transcript of the meeting provided to Bloomberg. “And whether we would do so or could so is all very unclear. ”
Reports surfaced two weeks ago that Google was developing a project, called Dragonfly, to launch a mobile search app that would censor results in compliance with the Chinese government. Google pulled its servers from mainland China in 2010 over concerns with government censorship, a decision Brin primarily drove. Google’s cloud division is also in talks with multiple Chinese companies about partnerships in the country as the internet search giant seeks ways to get back into the world’s second-biggest economy, Bloomberg News has reported.
The first two questions from staff members at Google’s Thursday meeting were about Dragonfly, the people said. After those discussions, a company official suggested changing the topic because the executives’ comments were already being leaked online, one of the people said.
“Our stated mission is to organize the world’s information,” Pichai said, according to the transcript. “China is one-fifth of the world’s population. I think if we were to do our mission well, I think we have to think seriously about how we do more in China.”
More than 1,000 Google employees signed an internal petition that said the Dragonfly project raised “urgent moral and ethical issues,” according to a copy viewed by Bloomberg News. The signatories also wrote that the project was “made in secret,” and asked for management to set up oversight processes for the initiative.
“I genuinely do believe we have a positive impact when we engage around the world and I don’t see any reason why that would be different in China,” Pichai said. “We’ll definitely be transparent as we get closer to actually having a plan of record here. We definitely do plan to engage more and talk more.”