SAN FRANCISCO/HONG KONG/BEIJING - Google is preparing a version of its search engine for China that blocks results Beijing considers sensitive, according to people familiar with the situation.
The initiative is code-named Dragonfly and is one of several options the company is pursuing for returning to China, the people said, while noting the timing is still up in the air. They asked not to be identified discussing private plans.
The move would mark an abrupt about-face by the Alphabet Inc. unit and a win for China’s communist government, which suppresses free speech online. Google co-founder Sergey Brin, whose parents brought him to the U.S. to escape communist Russia, led a dramatic exit from mainland China in 2010 after the company refused to self-censor search content. Brin has since stepped back from day-to-day operations, and the internet giant is now run by Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai. Still, other Google employees were angered by the news Wednesday.
“WTF!” Google researcher Meredith Whittaker wrote on Twitter, describing the company’s move as “enabling mass politically-directed censorship of (AI-enabled) search.” She suggested the move may violate a recent Google pledge not to build technology that contravenes widely accepted principles on human rights. Other employees expressed similar frustration, but asked not to be identified.
Google has been fighting internally over the ethical implications of its actions in recent years, and the China dilemma is a major battlefront. The company’s founding motto was “Don’t be evil,” and many Googlers are loath to support an undemocratic government that quashes dissent. Still, China has the world’s second-largest economy and a huge and fast-growing population of internet users. That’s hard for a for-profit corporation to resist.
“Google is waking up to smell the coffee,” said Andy Mok, founder and president of Beijing-based consultancy Red Pagoda Resources LLC. “Not being in China is a huge strategic miscalculation. The liberals of this world obviously will recoil at the idea.”
Google has been working on Dragonfly since the spring of 2017 and demonstrated a sanitized version of its search app to Chinese officials, the Intercept reported, citing company documents and unidentified people familiar with the matter. A final version of the app could be launched within six to nine months, it said.
“We provide a number of mobile apps in China, such as Google Translate and Files Go, help Chinese developers, and have made significant investments in Chinese companies like JD.com. But we don’t comment on speculation about future plans,” Google said in an emailed statement.
China has been the biggest hole in Google’s global footprint since it withdrew in 2010. Most of its services are blocked, including Gmail and the Google Play app store.
In the company’s absence, Baidu Inc. has strengthened its grip on search in China while Microsoft Corp.’s Bing operates in the country by censoring subjects and words. Facebook and Twitter are blocked outright. Shares in Baidu, which reported better-than-expected results a day earlier, slumped as much as 8 percent Wednesday.
In recent years, Google has made overtures to Beijing and the country’s tech industry, providing its TensorFlow AI products as well as investing in Chinese corporations and startups such as JD.com Inc. In 2014 and 2015, Google developed a version of its Play app store that only included apps and services approved by the Chinese government, but that hasn’t launched.
The company decided to quicken the development of a censored search service after Pichai met with top government official Wang Huning in December 2017, the Intercept reported. Google insiders don’t know if China will approve the app amid an escalating trade dispute with the U.S., but Search head Ben Gomes told staff last month to be ready to launch on short notice.
Beijing bans outright criticism of the government and mentions of such sensitive terms as the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Intercept reported that such terms would be censored in the planned app.
According to the Intercept, the app will automatically pick up on and block websites on Beijing’s blacklist, known as the Great Firewall. Such banned sites will be removed from the first page of results, replaced by a legal disclaimer disclosing the action. In some cases, no results will be displayed at all if a user types in a particularly sensitive query, the Intercept cited confidential documents as saying.
Google “faces an uphill battle in getting users who are now very accustomed to Baidu to switch,” said Mark Natkin, managing director of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting. “I am a bit surprised but it’s indicative of how much sway the China market now has.”