Reports of Google China’s death are greatly exaggerated

Google engineers have found that the search giant has continued with its work on the controversial search engine customised for China.

It looks that our conclusion that Google has “terminated” its China project may have been premature. After the management bowed to pressure from both inside and outside of the company to stop the customised search engine for China, codenamed “Dragonfly”, some engineers have told The Intercept that they have seen new codes being added to the products meant for this project.

Despite that the engineers on Dragonfly have been promised to be reassigned to other tasks, and many of them are, Google engineers said they noticed around 100 engineers are still under the cost centre created for the Dragonfly project. Moreover, about 500 changes were made to the code repositories in December, and over 400 changes between January and February of this year. The codes have been developed for the mobile search apps that would be launched for Android and iOS users in China.

There is the possibility that these may be residuals from the suspended project. One source told The Intercept that the code changes could possibly be attributed to employees who have continued this year to wrap up aspects of the work they were doing to develop the Chinese search platform. But it is also worth noting that the Google leadership never formally rang the dead knell of Dragonfly.

The project, first surfaced last November, has angered quite a few Google employees that they voiced their concern to the management. This was also a focal point of Sundar Pichai’s Congressional testimony in December. At that time, multiple Congress members questioned Pichai on this point, including Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Tom Marino (R-PA), David Cicilline (D-RI), Andy Biggs (R-AZ), and Keith Rothfus (R-PA), according to the transcript. Pichai’s answers were carefully worded, when he repeated stated “right now there are no plans for us to launch a search product in China”. When challenged by Tom Marino, the Congressman from Pennsylvania, on the company’s future plan for China, Pichai dodged the question by saying “I’m happy to consult back and be transparent should we plan something there.”

On learning that Google has not entirely killed off Dragonfly, Anna Bacciarelli of Amnesty International told The Intercept, “it’s not only failing on its human rights responsibilities but ignoring the hundreds of Google employees, more than 70 human rights organizations, and hundreds of thousands of campaign supporters around the world who have all called on the company to respect human rights and drop Dragonfly.”

While Sergei Brin, who was behind Google’s decision to pull out of China in 2010, was ready to stand up to censorship and dictatorship, which he had known too well from his childhood in the former Soviet Union, Pichai has adopted a more mercantile approach towards questionable markets since he took over the helm at Google in 2015. In a more recent case, Google (and Apple) has refused to take down the app Absher from their app stores in Saudi Arabia, with Goolge claiming that the app does not violate its policies. The app allows men to control where women travel and offers alerts if and when they leave the country.

This has clearly irritated the lawmakers. 14 House members wrote to Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, “Twenty first century innovations should not perpetuate sixteenth century tyranny. Keeping this application in your stores allows your companies and your American employees to be accomplices in the oppression of Saudi Arabian women and migrant workers.”

Google has apparently pulled the plug on its censored search engine for China

Google bowed to pressure by terminating its data analysis system that is vital to its planned re-entry into China with a censored search engine.

Dragonfly, the Google project to develop a search engine that would satisfy China’s censorship requirements relies on pre-empting the appearance of search results that the Chinese authorities may find offensive. To do so, Google has used 265.com, a Chinese internet portal based in Beijing it purchased in 2008, two years before it pulled out of China, to gather user behaviour data, mainly search habits. The Google team then compare what the users would see if the same search terms were used on the uncensored Google and eliminate those sites that are blocked by China’s Great Firewall. The data is then fed into the prototype Dragonfly search engine to produce results that would be acceptable to the Chinese censorship system.

According to a new report from the website The Intercept, Google has decided to shut down this data analysis system it has established with Baidu, which the search on 265.com is directed to, to harvest data. Instead the engineering team is using search queries by Chinese speaking users in other markets like the US or south-eastern Asian countries, which would be very different from what the users behind the Great Firewall would be generating and therefore defeating the very purpose of a censored search engine. Though this decision may not have explicitly spelt the death penalty for Dragonfly, it is a very close one.

A couple of factors must have played important parts in the decision-making process. Employee revolt is the first one. When Dragonfly was first exposed, an increasing number of employees have signed an internal petition to stop the project, reminiscing the company’s “Don’t Be Evil” manifesto. The very idea that Google would ponder creating a censored version for China may be a shock to most employees, but not unimaginable considering the different leaderships. Sergey Brin, who was at the helm of Google when the company shut down its China operation in 2010 as a protest, spent his childhood in the former Soviet Union, therefore had first-hand understanding of what censorship is about. Sundar Pichai, on the other hand, lacks similar sense and sensibility, having grown up in India, the largest democracy in the world.

Another source of internal pressure has come from the Privacy and Security teams. It has been reported by different media outlets that Scott Beaumont, Google’s head of China operation and the main architect behind Dragonfly, has deliberately kept the privacy and security teams in the dark as long as possible. For a company of Google’s nature, which lives on users’ trust in its willingness and capabilities to guard the security of their data, protests from these internal teams must have had the management ears. On the other hand, the fact that executives like Beaumont could carry on his secret project as long as it has must be a surprise to outside observers.

The strongest external pressure has come from the Congress. Pichai was grilled by the American law-makers last week when he was challenged by the Congressman David Cicilline (D-R.I). “It’s hard to imagine you could operate in the Chinese market under the current government framework and maintain a commitment to universal values, such as freedom of expression and personal privacy.” Pichai conceded that there was “no plans to launch a search service in China,” though he had declined to provide a positive confirmation to the Congress’ demand that Google should not launch “a tool for surveillance and censorship in China”.

With the latest decision to terminate data harvesting from 265.com, it seems Dragonfly or similar projects are put into a long hibernation.