Sundar Pichai told Congress last week that Google has “no plans to launch Search in China.” In an interview after the hearing, the CEO suggested other non-Search areas that Google could explore in the country, like healthcare. A new report today reveals that Project Dragonfly is “effectively ended.”
The Intercept this morning detailed how Google’s internal privacy teams forced the shutdown of a data analysis system used to find out what users in China were searching for. This dataset was collected from a popular site — 265.com — with a directory, news, but most importantly a search engine that directed queries to competing Baidu.
As part of that redirect, Google would collect those search terms to learn about user interests and preferences. This data was used to build a prototype of Dragonfly, with queries also run through a tool that checked what terms would have to be censored according to the government.
Dragonfly leadership hid the existence of this Chinese ‘honeypot’ site from the company’s privacy team in a bid to exempt it from regular safeguards and the review process for user data. Google’s privacy group only learned about its existence when The Intercept first reported on Dragonfly in August.
The privacy team prevailed by confronting leadership and the Dragonfly team was told to stop using the search data, and turn to other sources — like global search terms — to develop the censored Chinese search engine. This decision “stopped progress” on Dragonfly due to a lack of relevant data, while today’s report also notes how “several groups of engineers” have been reassigned to other developing countries Google is interested in like India and Indonesia.
For Googlers and human rights groups opposed to Dragonfly, this appears to be a win. Google was facing mass employee outage if it continued the project, with the latest protest featuring over 700 signatories.
Meanwhile, Google and Sundar Pichai are still interested in China for the growth potential. Most recently, the CEO touted the idea of the company exploring healthcare and education. The latter might be contentious in the country, but the former fits right into the company’s growing health ambition.