A tense internal meeting between Google CEO Sundar Pichai and employees went sideways as execs addressed rumors about the company’s China plans (GOOG, GOOGL)

Kimberly White/Reuters

  • Google CEO Sundar Pichai and cofounder Sergey Brin met with employees during an all-hands meeting on Thursday and discussed reports that Google planned to launch a censored search engine in China.
  • Pichai told staff that the company is not close to launching a search product in China.
  • The meeting grew tense as Pichai and Brin discovered someone was providing real-time reports on the meeting to a reporter.

On Thursday, in a meeting with employees, Google’s leadership addressed reports from earlier this month that the company had built a censored search engine in order to once again operate in China, according to Twitter posts from multiple reporters.

Kate Conger, a New York Times reporter posted to Twitter what she said were comments made during the meeting by Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Sergey Brin, one of the company’s cofounders.

“If we were to do our mission well, we are to think seriously about how to do more in China,” Pichai told employees, according to The Times. “That said, we are not close to launching a search product in China.”

Brin denied having knowledge of the program until after news leaked and controversy erupted, or as Brin called it “this kerfuffle.”

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A Google spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

The reports that Google wanted to reintroduce search inside China is a reversal from the position the company took in 2010, when managers pulled out of the country instead of capitulating to the government’s demands to filter out websites and information that China’s leaders found objectionable.

Two sources who were privy to what occurred in Thursday’s meeting told Business Insider that Pichai only briefly addressed — and not in any detailed way — the big question on the minds of many at the company: Why is Google considering a return to China? The CEO described the moves being made by the company in that country as “exploratory.”

When the news of a censored search engine was first made public, some Google employees were critical of management’s decision. And earlier on Thursday, a letter began to circulate among staff that called on the company’s leaders to create an “ethics review structure” to ensure transparency on issues involving ethics.

Some of the tension that has lingered at the company — including an earlier controversy regarding Google’s work with the military — resurfaced at Thursday’s meeting.

The discussions became tense when Google’s leaders discovered that someone attending the meeting or listening in remotely was supplying live information to Conger, the New York Times reporter. Brin said he would not continue discussing China because of the leaks, according to the sources who spoke to Business Insider.

It is unusual at Google for someone to live-tweet about all-hands meetings

The sources said that this was the moment when the image of Conger’s tweets were displayed on a large screen in the room with Pichai and Brin. One Google employee who had stood to ask a question suddenly addressed whomever was surreptitiously leaking information.

“F–k you,” he said. He then demanded that the person leave.

The sources said the epithet received some applause.

Brin and Pichai stopped taking questions about China for a while, but later took up the subject again after it was clear the leaking had stopped. Google management and employees have a long tradition of sharing ideas and information without it showing up in news publications, which makes the Thursday incident unusual.

The fact that someone within Google was sharing info in real-time appeared to anger some workers, one source said.

But according to two sources, when the meeting finally ended, it didn’t go unnoticed that many details regarding Google’s plans for China were still unknown.

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SEE ALSO: Over 1,400 Googlers signed a letter to the top execs demanding a say on ethical issues — read the letter here

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