Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently testified in front of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee that the company currently has “no plans to launch in China.” And with the latest media reports suggesting that Google is transferring employees from its controversial Dragonfly project to other ventures, it seems as if the company has effectively ended pursuing the Chinese market.
Shutting down Dragonfly
Google had been operating a website called 265.com in China that provided users with a function to search through websites, videos, and images. Though such queries were routed to Baidu (China’s most popular search engine), Google did store all searches done by the users before redirecting them.
This huge dataset was used by Google to identify the most common searches done in China. The company would then review all websites that would turn up as a result of the queries. Using a tool called “BeaconTower,” the tech giant checked whether any website that would be shown in Google’s search results had been officially banned by the Chinese government.
If so, Google would blacklist the result and integrate it into the list of banned websites in Dragonfly to ensure that these websites would never get shown when queries were made through the search engine. The list of banned websites apparently included the BBC and even Wikipedia.
However, the project is now said to be suspended. The research teams have stopped gathering data from Chinese users. In addition, “several groups of engineers have now been moved off of Dragonfly completely, and told to shift their attention away from China to instead work on projects related to India, Indonesia, Russia, the Middle East, and Brazil,” according to The Intercept.
Google’s decision to shut down Dragonfly stems from the huge opposition it received. In an open letter written by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and 12 other human rights organizations, they stated: “Google risks becoming complicit in the Chinese government’s repression of freedom of speech and other human rights in China. Google should heed the concerns raised by human rights groups and its own employees and refrain from offering censored search services in China.”
Hundreds of employees threatened to quit Google if the company went ahead with its censored web engine project for China. A few of them actually did quit. Even shareholders of Google voiced concerns regarding Dragonfly. Azzad Asset Management, a socially responsible investment firm, said that the issue “raised concerns” at their company.
Many users in China were also unhappy about Google’s plans for launching a censored search engine in their country. “Google’s own employees have boycotted the project. For those who really like Google, they don’t want to see it having a censored version for the China market,” one Weibo user had commented (Business Standard).
When Google ditched a U.S. military contract on “human rights concerns,” several people pointed out that such an action was pure hypocrisy considering the company’s decision to accommodate the wishes of an authoritarian Chinese regime. Faced with such tremendous opposition, Google was forced to reevaluate their China plans.
For now, it is safe to say that Dragonfly will not be moving forward anytime soon. However, Google did pull out from the Chinese market in 2010, only to try to enter it again by agreeing to Beijing’s censorship rules. As such, it remains to be seen how long Google honors its own principles of free speech and an open Internet.