Google is working on a return to China, with the tech giant developing a censored search engine to appease the country’s laws, according to a report from The Intercept on Wednesday.
The search engine would “blacklist sensitive queries,” according to a company whistleblower, who told the outlet he was concerned about the precedent this move would set.
“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. “What is done in China will become a template for many other nations.”
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Google’s clandestine plans have been spearheaded by CEO Sundar Pichai since early 2017, according to the report. The project, operating under the name “Dragonfly,” is limited to a few hundred employees, The Intercept reports. The search engine would strictly be a mobile app when it launches, potentially within the next six to nine months, according to the report.
“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,” a Google spokesperson told TheWrap.
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China’s “Great Firewall,” as it has facetiously been dubbed, has stifled free speech online for years through a network of moderators, technical restraints and legislative regulations. The Chinese government blocks access to pornography and news stories that are overly critical of its Communist regime, as well as major sites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Google’s new search engine would scrub results for topics the government doesn’t allow, like the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, along with certain images, per The Intercept. A parallel online universe exists in China, with popular social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo, a Twitter-esque communication app, filling the void of their blocked Western analogs.
President Xi Jinping has made it clear in recent years he isn’t in favor of a free press.
“All news media run by the party must work to speak for the party’s will and its propositions, and protect the party’s authority and unity,” Xi said in 2016.
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Google operated a censored version of its search engine in China between 2006 and 2010. The Mountain View, California-based company pulled out of China as its online censorship became increasingly severe. Attempts “to further limit free speech on the web,” said the company in 2010 had given it reason to back away from the country entirely.
That decision appears to be reconsidered under Pichai’s stewardship.