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Google CEO talks Huawei, regulations and company size

Sundar Pichai supports clear and consistent rules for protecting data

Google CEO Sundar Pichai says data regulation needs to balance between protecting personal information and allowing for innovation. (Photo courtesy of Google)

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- Despite its commanding presence as a technology titan, Google faces no shortage of challenges. U.S. President Donald Trump has openly questioned its work with China. There are growing calls to better protect the massive amount of personal user data Google handles, and authorities in the U.S. have launched an antitrust investigation into some of its activities.

"We are not building a search project for China. I think we have been very clear on that for a while now," CEO Sundar Pichai told Nikkei in an interview. Google's previous plans to re-enter mainland China with a censored version of the Google search engine has met harsh criticism from the Trump administration and Congress.

"I think the U.S.-China bilateral trade conversations are really important," Pichai said, expressing his wish that the two sides "get it right in a way that works for their citizens."

Regarding the company's business relationship with Huawei Technologies, Pichai said that its Android is an open source platform and still available to the Chinese smartphone maker. "We do everything consistent with the law, to help sustain that ecosystem."

Regarding Huawei developing its own mobile operating system after the U.S. government banned American companies from exporting items to the company, Pichai said "Huawei is a very successful company, and I think they will have initiatives."

"I fully expect Huawei to serve its users, and I think we all have to adjust to the realities of the trade situation and work accordingly," he said.

A new challenge facing Google is the patchwork of regulatory regimes emerging in different countries.

A self-described "tech optimist," Pichai stressed the importance of balancing regulation and innovation. "There is some inherent tension between countries, rightfully, being worried about safeguarding its own citizens and better protecting them," he said. "And helping balance that against a connective, open, and free internet" that creates new opportunities.

"Depending on how early your technology is, you want to make sure you can innovate, because technology can also solve important problems."

One area where regulations are starting to come into view is data privacy. Privacy rules give "a clear framework for what users can expect, what businesses need to comply with, and I think it's good to have standards and frameworks for technology," Pichai said.

Such regimes can become a burden for Google, which derives more than 80% of its revenue through digital advertising. But the company believes that privacy regulations are unavoidable.

He pointed to the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation as an example of a framework that gives users a clear idea of how their privacy is protected, and companies ideas on how to build products. "Hopefully it's a template for the rest of the world," he said, suggesting that a unified, global standard would be ideal.

Problems arise when different countries and regions create their own frameworks, creating a patchwork of regulations. Japan, the U.S., and India are all considering the issue, and California is set to enact statewide regulations next year.

Pichai pushed back against the charge that Google has become too big. "At a high level, stepping back, we're a company at scale. The internet works at scale."

"We have hundreds of researchers who work on AI in health care, to help better detect and treat diseases, as an example," he said, also pointing to the company's work on AI and cyber security. "The scale at which you need to do these things involves tremendous R&D, and the need to do it at scale."

In response to criticism over the company's aggressive merger and acquisition strategy, Pichai stressed that Google was not seeking to monopolize any market and that it still competes with other companies in many areas. "We are behind some other companies in cloud," he said as an example.

Authorities have been cracking down on tech giants, with about 40 U.S. states launching antitrust probes into Google and Facebook in September. The company will likely remain at odds with the government regarding its scale and activities for some time.

Regarding artificial intelligence, Pichai is more cautious when it comes to regulation, at least for now. The field "is very much in its infancy, and we also are approaching a lot of our AI work in an open way," he said.

Google's position is that regulating current forms of AI, which can only handle specific tasks like image recognition or translation, will not eliminate bias and other issues with the technology.

But "I expect robust AI regulation to be there" over time as the field progresses toward general purpose AI, Pichai said. He cited Google's AI principles published last year, and said each company needs to think about its ethical standards for the technology.

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