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Controversy at Google

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An illuminated Google logo is seen inside an office building in Zurich September 5, 2018.

[NEW YORK] The past few weeks have been, for Google, "a difficult time," said Sundar Pichai, its chief executive.

The company faced walkouts by employees around the world protesting its handling of sexual harassment after an article in The New York Times revealed that male executives received millions of dollars in exit packages after they were accused of misconduct.

"There's been anger and frustration within the company," Mr Pichai said last week. "We all feel it. I feel it too. At Google, we set a very high bar, and we clearly didn't live up to our expectations."

Mr Pichai said that the company had "drawn a very hard line" on inappropriate behavior in recent years and that Google was "a different place."

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But, he added, "moments like this show we didn't always do it right." He promised that "there are concrete steps coming up," but hesitated to say that Google had a toxic culture.

"Sexual harassment is a societal problem, and Google is a large company," he said. "We are definitely doing our best."

Mr Pichai has run the company for three years, and they have been fraught with internal clashes and external finger-pointing.

Last summer, he fired a software engineer who circulated a memo questioning Google's diversity strategy and the tech industry's gender gap. Criticism against the move, as well as support for it, came swiftly; the employee, James Damore, sued Google in January alleging workplace discrimination.

"We are a company that's about freedom of expression and information," Mr Pichai said, while noting that "we allow people to speak up," but "also have a code of conduct."

Republican legislators have criticised the company with allegations of political bias. A video posted in September to the right-wing media site Breitbart showed Google executives, including Mr Pichai, bemoaning the election of US president Donald Trump while at a company meeting in 2016.

Mr Pichai, and other top Google executives, skipped a Senate committee hearing that month about foreign interference in elections. The absence was viewed as a slight by many in Congress and was pointedly marked by an empty chair next to Twitter's chief executive, Jack Dorsey, and Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, as they testified.

Criticism of Google's no-show led to Mr Pichai arriving in Washington within weeks to hear Republicans' concerns.

Mr Pichai said that Google had "local left-leaning employees and local right-leaning employees," but stressed that the company had a global mindset. Besides, he said, personal political leanings are "different than how we build our products, and we are committed to doing it a nonpartisan way."

In August, Google employees circulated a letter voicing concern about "urgent moral and ethical issues." They demanded more transparency from the company about its plans to secretly build a censored version of its search engine in China, a country it exited eight years ago over censorship issues.

On Thursday, Mr Pichai said that "there's nothing we're doing right now" on the so-called Dragonfly plan and that Google would consult with the federal government before making a move.

"There are many other companies, our peer companies, doing a lot more in China than we are," he said. "There's nothing imminent; we take a very long-term view."

NYTIMES