According to a report this morning from The Intercept, Google is planning to re-launch its search engine in China. Coming back into the world’s most populous country, however, comes with a serious condition: Google will comply with demands from Chinese officials to censor topics it deems undesirable.
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Project “Dragonfly” has reportedly been in the works since spring 2017, and picked up steam in the wake of a meeting between Google CEO Sundar Pichai and an unnamed Chinese official late last year, the report says. It involves the development of a Google search app for Android that’s already been shown to the Chinese government and could get approval as soon as “the next six to nine months.”
There are apparently two internal prototype apps, codenamed “Maotai” and “Longfei.” They will “automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall,” and as happens with pirated content in the west, a disclaimer will be shown to users that “some results may have been removed due to statutory requirements.”
Perhaps even more worryingly, the documents seen by The Intercept say that the app will also blacklist some sensitive queries entirely so that “no results will be shown.” The report notes that the blacklist will apply to all aspects of search within the app — from images to spell check and suggested searches.
The source that presumably provided these documents to The Intercept apparently feared the precedent set by Google if it launches in China, bowing to its strict censorship rules.
“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 source told The Intercept. They said that they fear “what is done in China will become a template for many other nations.”
The Intercept also spoke with Patrick Poon, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Amnesty International, about the shift in policy, who said it will set a “terrible precedent.” “This has very serious implications not just for China, but for all of us, for freedom of information and internet freedom,” Poon said.
This big change in Google’s approach to China comes after almost a decade of not operating its search engine there at all. Google’s desktop search engine is banned by the “Great Firewall”, and most of Google’s non-search services — such as Gmail and Google Drive — have been banned in China for their entire existence.
Google cited China’s “non-negotiable legal requirement” for self-censorship as one reason why it decided to leave the country in 2010 amidst pressure from the US government and others, in a blog post titled “A new approach to China“:
Figuring out how to make good on our promise to stop censoring search on Google.cn has been hard. 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.
Now, it seems Google has yet another new approach. There’s no word yet on the availability of Google search on the desktop or other Google services in China — they’re focused on the Android app for now.