China infamously maintains extensive censorship of the internet with strict legislation in place to regulate domestic internet usage. Steps in recent years like removing VPN apps from the App store, blocking social media applications such as WhatsApp and Instagram, and restricting access to the ZeroNet website provide evidence as to why the combination of internet censorship regulations in the country is derisively dubbed "The Great Firewall of China".
Google certainly hasn't shied away from controversy when dealing with the Chinese government, refusing to bow down to its censorship rules in 2010 and shutting down its search engine in the country. However, it did end up continuing its operations in China.
Now, according to a report from The Intercept, Google is planning to bring a new version of its search engine to China that will adhere to the country's censorship laws. In essence, it will be blacklisting certain websites and search terms regarding democracy, human rights, religion, and more.
Code-named Dragonfly, this project has reportedly been in the works since the spring season last year, and apparently started moving quicker after a meeting in December between Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, and a top Chinese government official. The tech giant has reportedly created an Android app catering to the country's censorship laws, different versions of which are called "Maotai" and "Longfei". Furthermore, the report claims that said app has already been shown to Chinese government and is only pending approval before its launch, approximately within the next six to nine months.
Documents referred to as "Google confidential" have also been reportedly been discovered, stating that banned websites will not be shown on the first page of search results, while a disclaimer that reads "some results may have been removed due to statutory requirements" will be displayed instead. Moreover these documents also state that websites like BBC News and Wikipedia are going to be among those subject to censorship. Blacklisting of sensitive queries would also lead to no search result being displayed, while certain suggested search features will be restricted as well. This will ensure that people will not be recommended photos and information banned by the Chinese government.
A Google spokeswoman refused to verify the existence of any such project, issuing a brief statement that reads as follows:
"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."
Quite interestingly, however, a Google worker told Reuters that he had himself transferred out of his unit in order to avoid any involvement with this project. He further went on to say that he had seen slides related to this plan, and many executives at the vice president level were aware of this project as well.
It could make sense for the tech giant to reintroduce its search engine in China, considering the country is currently the biggest internet market in the world. However, it will undoubtedly have to face considerable backlash if this report turns out to be legitimate. In fact, Patrick Poon, a Hong Kong-based researcher working with human rights group Amnesty International, has already made his thoughts regarding the "big disaster for the information age" clear, noting:
"This has very serious implications not just for China, but for all of us, for freedom of information and internet freedom. It will set a terrible precedent for many other companies who are still trying to do business in China while maintaining the principles of not succumbing to China’s censorship. 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."
It is unknown whether the firm will eventually launch a desktop version of its search platform in China as well. Sources indicate that some Google employees have also claimed that the escalating trade war between the U.S. and China means that approval for the finalization of this project won't necessarily be granted.