Recently leaked documents reveal Google might be ready to make a government-friendly, censored version of its search engine in order to gain access to the Chinese people. This would mark the company’s return to both the country and the government’s stringent censorship.
The report from The Intercept revealed a project called “Dragonfly,” and claimed its existence was known only to a relatively small amount of employees. It’s an Android app, and allegedly a finalized version has been shown to Chinese government officials.
This app, a modified search engine, will block or censor sites like Wikipedia and Twitter, and news sites like The New York Times, or the BBC. It’ll automatically filter sites that don’t meet the country’s strict content standards, and banned websites won’t appear on the first page of results. The Intercept‘s source also says searches for certain terms will yield no results.
Google hasn’t had a search engine in China in eight years. While the company offered a censored version of its search engine in the country in the past, in 2010 it announced it would no longer be complying with the country’s rules:
We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainland China, yet the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement… We very much hope that the Chinese government respects our decision, though we are well aware that it could at any time block access to our services.
China did just that a few weeks after Google made this announcement, with the so-called Great Firewall blocking access to the site.
That said, the company has been making slight overtures to the Chinese people. Given the size of the market, it’s perhaps not surprising. Earlier this year, the company inked a deal with Chinese company Tencent, and it now offers a mini game called “Guess My Sketch” on Tencent’s WeChat app. It’s also built an AI research lab in Beijing.
Google responded to the report in a statement to The Verge saying, “we don’t comment on speculation about future plans.”
The Intercept‘s source expressed deep reservations at Google’s confab with the Chinese government, saying they feared it could set an example for censorship in other countries: “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 Chinese government, meanwhile, has denied its reports of draconian censorship to a certain degree. For example, it insisted last year that it wasn’t blocking VPNs, which are currently one of the few options for Chinese citizens who want to bypass the Great Firewall.
If Google does make the jump to the Chinese market, it’ll be competing with Baidu, the entrenched local search engine. According to MarketWatch, Baidu’s stock dropped slightly after The Intercept‘s report broke.
Update (September 13, 2018): According to Reuters, the state-owned China Securities Daily noted that Google isn’t building a censored search engine for the country. That’s from information the outlet has received from “relevant departments”. That said, another Reuters report allegedly confirmed the project’s existence.