Since last December, when Google CEO Sundar Pichai kissed the ring of Chinese leaders at China’s World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Google has rapidly expanded its presence in China. SupChina has reported on Google’s opening of an AI research center, multiple apps that the company has launched in China along with strategic investments, and a half-billion-dollar investment deal between Google and Chinese ecommerce giant JD.com.
Why have the past eight months seen so much activity? Now we may have an answer.
Documents shown to the Intercept reveal that Google plans to launch a censored version of its search engine in China in the form of an Android app. And Sundar Pichai’s China visit in December appears to have played a pivotal role in greenlighting development of the new app: The Intercept says that the documents show the project, code-named Dragonfly, “accelerated” since that time. Here are the details on the secret project:
- “Google’s Chinese search app will automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall.”
- “The search app will also ‘blacklist sensitive queries’ so that ‘no results will be shown’ at all when people enter certain words or phrases.”
- “The app has already been demonstrated to the Chinese government.”
- “The finalized version could be launched in the next six to nine months, pending approval from Chinese officials.” Or, Google’s search engine chief Ben Gomes told staff last month, it could be earlier if “suddenly the world changes or [President Donald Trump] decides his new best friend is Xi Jinping.”
Only a “few hundred” members of Google’s 88,000-plus workforce had access to the information. One of those people, because of “moral and ethical concerns about Google’s role in the censorship,” let the Intercept look at the documents. “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,” said the Intercept’s source, adding that they feared “what is done in China will become a template for many other nations.”
Back in 2010, Google chose to abandon the censored version of its search engine that it had operated in China since 2006, becoming one of very few foreign companies — and by far the most prominent — to back away from the Chinese market for ethical, rather than business-related, reasons. The Intercept says that two things are responsible for the new strategy change — a growing Chinese market and a changing leadership structure at Google. For instance, the company’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union and was among the most sensitive to criticism of Google’s censorship pre-2010, is less hands-on now.
Right now, the development is focused on the Android app, with no word of an iOS app or web option for desktop, but given the reach of Android in China, this step would be more a head-and-shoulders plunge than a tiptoe back into the Chinese market. Of the 750 million internet users in China, “researchers estimate that more than 95 percent…use mobile devices to go online, and Android is by far the most popular mobile operating system in the country, with 80 percent of the market share,” the Intercept notes.
Amnesty International researcher Patrick Poon gets it just right in this quote to the Intercept: “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.”