early a decade after leaving China in a huff, Google is now reportedly working on making a comeback in the Middle Kingdom with a search engine that will fully comply with the wishes of Chinese censors.
The secretive project is codenamed “Dragonfly” and has been underway for more than a year. We now know this because one concerned individual close to the project decided to blow the whistle about what is going on to The Intercept.
“I’m against large companies and governments collaborating in the oppression of their people, and feel like transparency around what’s being done is in the public interest,” the whistleblower said, before warning “what is done in China will become a template for many other nations.”
From 2006 to 2010, Google operated a censored version of its search engine in China, something it was regularly criticized for. Eventually, the company decided to scrap the search engine after Chinese human rights activists’ Gmail accounts were hacked in a coordinated attack and negotiations with the Chinese government predictably failed to result in any kind of agreement.
“We also made clear that these attacks and the surveillance they uncovered—combined with attempts over the last year to further limit free speech on the web in China including the persistent blocking of websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Docs and Blogger—had led us to conclude that we could no longer continue censoring our results on Google.cn,” the company wrote in a public statement at the time.
However, it appears that Google has now had a change of heart, perhaps influenced by China’s estimated 772 million internet users. According to the whistleblower, the new search engine is being built as an Android mobile app. It will automatically block any websites or searches that are not approved under the Great Firewall.
Amnesty International researcher Patrick Poon told The Intercept that Google working with the Chinese government sets a “terrible precedent” for other international companies, calling the development of the search engine “a big disaster for the information age.”
“The biggest search engine in the world obeying the censorship in China is a victory for the Chinese government — it sends a signal that nobody will bother to challenge the censorship any more,” Poon said.
Others commentators on Twitter have been similarly troubled by the news.
If Google goes through with this and launches a censored search engine in China, effectively normalizing and Americanizing authoritarian censorship, this will be the Waterloo in the global battle for a free internet as a norm. https://t.co/KHGDOZqEWi
— B. Allen-Ebrahimian (@BethanyAllenEbr) August 1, 2018
strange that Google won't work with the US military but has no issues working to appease the PRC, guess the Red Sirens of the China market are just too irresistible…
— Bill Bishop (@niubi) August 1, 2018
Google actually considered naming the censored search engine it plans to launch in China Maotai. Because it leaves a bad taste in your mouth? https://t.co/HDWXiBUGqz
— Mara Hvistendahl (@MaraHvistendahl) August 1, 2018
According to The Intercept, the search app has already been demonstrated to the Chinese government and could be launched in as little as six months. Of course, this would require the approval of officials in Beijing, something that is not easy to get — just ask Facebook.
China already has well-developed Google alternatives, most notably Baidu, a company that has thrived without having to worry about the Silicon Valley giant as a competitor. Allowing Google back into the country would appear to be of little overall benefit to the Chinese government. Over the years, rumors of the Google Play Store returning to China have emerged multiple times, only to come to nothing in the end.
At the moment, references to The Intercept’s article and the development of the search engine are being promptly expunged from Weibo, another fact that does not appear to bode well for Google’s chances.