Secret plans to create a version of the Google search engine have prompted internal anger
Google is facing a severe backlash both publicly and internally after secretive plans were leaked that described a version of the firm’s search engine which bowed to Chinese censorship demands.
The tech giant has attempted to claw back control quickly by closing down employee access to the plans, as reported by The Intercept.
Whilst only a few hundred out of the 88,000-strong workforce had access to the confidential program, dubbed Dragonfly, exposure by the media triggered a wave of anger which is yet to be quelled.
Dragonfly is a project which aims to create a censored version of the Google search engine. As China has some of the most stringent censorship and freedom of speech restrictions on the planet, in order to be acceptable to Chinese officials, the search engine would have to emulate this stance.
Websites and search terms including queries related to human rights, religion, sex, democracy, and peaceful protest would all be blacklisted.
A custom Android app, of which versions have been called “Maotai” and “Longfei” have already been demoed to Chinese officials. The restricted apps could be launched in six to nine months, pending approval.
Sources speaking to the Intercept claim that the project has been underway since 2017. A meeting between Google CEO Sundar Pichai and a government official from China accelerated the plans.
Google’s search engine is currently blocked by what is known colloquially as the Great Firewall of China. First established in 2015, the firewall is constantly being revamped to prevent access to websites and online services — such as Google and YouTube — which may host content Chinese officials do not want readily accessible by citizens.
DNS poisoning, redirection, URL filtering and virtual private network (VPN) blocks are all in use to reinforce the wall. In addition, artificial intelligence (AI) has recently been added to make the system more efficient.
The country is also responsible for the Great Cannon, a tool which has been used against websites including code repository GitHub for allegedly hosting content deemed unacceptable to the Chinese government.
Google’s modified engine will reportedly automatically detect websites which are blocked by the Great Firewall and emulate the same response to online queries. A message would then be seen by the user which says that “some results may have been removed due to statutory requirements.”
The BBC and Wikipedia are amongst the websites listed in the plans as blocked. Image searches will receive the same treatment.
The backlash to such plans must be a sight to behold. An insider speaking to the publication said:
“Everyone’s access to documents got turned off and is being turned on [on a] document-by-document basis. There’s been total radio silence from leadership, which is making a lot of people upset and scared. … Our internal meme site and Google Plus are full of talk, and people are a.n.g.r.y.”
The decision to create a censored search engine is a surprising reversal of the firm’s previous stance on censorship. Google previously launched a restricted service for Chinese users in 2006, but the system was pulled four years later due to the Chinese ruling party’s attempts to crackdown on free speech.
“It will be a dark day for Internet freedom if Google has acquiesced to China’s extreme censorship rules to gain market access,” human rights outfit Amnesty International said in a statement. “It is impossible to see how such a move is compatible with Google’s ‘Do the right thing’ motto, and we are calling on the company to change course.”
A Google spokesperson told Computer Business Review that: “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.”