Google has finally confirmed on the record that is going forward with Project-Dragonfly, a sensor-chip friendly search engine developed to reach the Chinese market. The new search engine will supposedly filter websites and search terms not-approved by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Last summer, a series of documents were leaked and some anonymous sources confirmed at the time that a group of Google’s top engineers were working on an app that restricts CCP-banned content. According to the leaked documents, Project Dragonfly had been underway since the spring of 2017 and had been put into motion after a meeting between Google CEO Sundar Pichai and a top CCP official.
At the time, there was no way of knowing whether Google’s opening in China was certain, since it’s not uncommon for tech firms to build and test services that never become publicly available.
However, while speaking at the Wired 25 summit on Monday, Pichai not only confirmed the project’s existence but praised its progress and successful test runs. He also added that he feels the company is “compelled by our mission to provide information to everyone”, citing China’s rather sizeable share of our global population.
It’s also unlikely that there will be any pushback on Project Dragonfly. When speaking on the recent employee opposition against Project Maven, Google’s AI contract with the US Department of Defense, Pichai made it clear that employee protests don’t have a defining influence on administrative choices. “Throughout Google’s history, we’ve given our employees a lot of voice and say, but we don’t run the company by holding referendums.
Pichai was also keen to stress that this decision was central to the company’s primary objectives:
“People don’t understand fully, but you’re always balancing a set of values in every new country. Those values include providing access to information, freedom of expression, and user privacy. But we also follow the rule of law in every country.”
Google’s history with the Chinese market
Pichai’s comments seem to indicate a total 180 on Google’s censorship policy. Since the internet explosion, the company has a tumultuous relationship with Beijing officials and the Chinese market. Following a 2006 cyberattack on Google China’s servers, Google’s investigators found that a significant number of the accounts affected belonged to Chinese human-rights activists, indicating government involvement.
From 2006 to 2010, Google would continue to run its operations in China, modifying their search engine services in a way that appeased the government’s “Firewall” policies. The logic of Google officials was similar to Pichai’s. They claimed it would be more ethical to offer a censored service to the Chinese market rather than leave them with limited access to information.
However, following another range of cyberattacks in 2010, the government decided to halt its search engine operations. Instead of complying with Beijing’s requests to filter its results, Google directed all its Chinese traffic to its uncensored ‘google.hk’ search engine in Hong Kong. Within a couple months, Google was effectively shut down in Mainland China and has remained since.
Google’s challenges in appealing to China’s netizens
Google is likely to have some difficulty navigating itself in the Chinese market. Since its exit in 2010, censorship policies have been extended under President Xi Jinping’s government. Appeasing CCP demands can require a great deal of resources and hardware, and any slip up can have serious repercussions. In 2018 alone, Chinese internet regulators have shut down or revoked the licenses of over 3,000 websites.
Google might also have to consider its appeal to China’s internet market. Google may be pervasive in most corners of the world, but a large swath of China’s youth has grown up entirely without the service. In its absence, local competitors have risen to fill its space. Google will have to compete with Baidu, a search engine used currently by over 92% of internet users in the country. Google will have to distinguish its service from Baidu if it wants to make any major impact in China’s cyber-sphere.
In addition, Google’s appeal in Western markets is also based on its connections to its email service, app store, and YouTube. These services can only be used in China through a VPN, making them inaccessible to the majority of its internet base. If Google hopes to establish the same appeal it has in the West, it should seek to seek partnerships with local services like Tencent, Youku, or WeChat in order to stake out its appeal.
However, Pichai seems confident that Google will be able to provide unique services to Chinese users.
“It turns out we’ll be able to serve well over 99% of the queries that users request. There are many, many areas where we would provide information better than what’s available, such as searching for cancer treatments. Today people either get fake cancer treatments or they actually get useful information.”
Chinese social media is filled with mixed messages on Google’s return to its market. Many are frustrated with Baidu over the fake cancer treatment results that Pichai referenced. However, many people are worried that a censored Google will offer no more than a local Chinese search engine.
Liu Xingliang, a head of research at Beijing-based analytics firm ‘Data Center of the China Internet’, commented:
“We welcome a normal Google but not a neutered Google. We don’t need a second Baidu.