Google has been secretly developing a search app for the Chinese market that will filter out results related to human rights, democracy, religion and peaceful protest, VICE News confirmed Wednesday.
Google’s intentions were first reported by the Intercept, after a whistleblower leaked secret documents detailing a project known inside the company as “Dragonfly” and which has been under development for more than a year.
Only a couple of hundred employees at Google were informed about the project in order to avoid a backlash against the company for its support to censor free speech, the whistleblower said. A version of the Android app has already been shown to the Chinese government, they added, and the service could be launched as soon as early next year.
“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 whistleblower told the Intercept, adding that they feared “what is done in China will become a template for many other nations.”
A source inside the company, who was not authorized to speak on the record, confirmed that the contents of the Intercept report were accurate. But they said that it was unclear at this point if the app would be launched — partly because of the negative publicity surrounding the Intercept’s story and partly due to the ongoing tensions between Washington and Beijing over trade.
The app would require the approval of the Chinese government before Google could launch it.
Google pulled out of the Chinese search market in 2010, saying it “could no longer continue censoring our results.” In the intervening eight years, China’s surveillance and censorship of the internet have greatly expanded, but it appears the draw of a potential 750 million new customers was too much for Google to resist.
“[I’m] not surprised, it’s hard to resist the red sirens of the world's biggest internet market by users,” Bill Bishop, a well-known China watcher, told VICE News.
The news of Google’s impending return to the Chinese market was welcomed by Wall Street, with shares in parent company Alphabet trending upwards in pre-market trading, while shares in Chinese search app, Baidu, dropped.
But human rights groups claim the move could jeopardize internet freedom and cause a domino effect that will impact other companies operating in China. “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,” Patrick Poon, a research for Amnesty International, told the Intercept.
There have been strong indications for some time of Google’s desire to return to China.
Back in June 2016, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai explicitly laid out his desire to re-enter the market in China. “I care about servicing users globally in every corner,” Pichai said at the Code Conference. “Google is for everyone. We want to be in China serving Chinese users.”
Pichai then traveled to China and met with a top government official in December 2017. The same month Google announced an AI research center in Beijing, before launching its file management app Files Go in China in June. Last month it launched an AI-powered game called Quick Draw on the WeChat platform.
“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,” a Google spokesperson told VICE News, adding that the company didn’t comment on speculation about future plans.
Other U.S. companies — such as Apple and Amazon — continue to operate in China, and have had to make concessions to the Chinese government in order to remain in business. Apple recently had to agree to store all Chinese user data inside the country in collaboration with a Chinese government-approved partner.
And Google is not the only other company thought to be willing to give up concessions to access China’s huge internet user base. Facebook has long been reported to be working on access to the market, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg meeting Chinese officials, visiting Beijing and even learning Mandarin.
Cover image: A smart phone with the icons for the Google apps from Google Map, Google Drive, Google Translate, Google Photo, Google Play, Google Chrome, Google Authenticator, Google Calendar and Google Gmail are seen on the screen in Hong Kong, Hong Kong, on July 31, 2018. (S3studio/Getty Images)