Google to return to China? Leaked US docs say so but Chinese authorities deny

Don’t Do Evil but the US tech giant is reportedly planning a censored search app in China

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Google to return to China? Leaked US docs say so but Chinese authorities deny

China’s state-owned Securities Times reported (link in Chinese) on Thursday that reports of Google ’s re-entry in China are untrue, citing an unnamed source within the government, or “from relevant authorities”.

The Intercept wrote on Wednesday that US search giant Google is planning to re-enter the Chinese market with a censored version of a search engine, citing US government sources and documents.

Code-named Dragonfly, the Google project involves a customised Android app developed by Google engineers that will automatically be able to identify and block websites filtered by China’s Great Firewall, according to The Intercept. In a way that Chinese internet users are already accustomed to when using WeChat and Sina Weibo, a search for a banned website on this app would yield results with a note that some “may have been removed due to statutory requirements.” For example, links to the BBC website and Wikipedia would be removed from the search results, The Intercept said.

Separate reports by Reuters and New York Times, citing people familiar with the matter or working at Google, also confirmed the existence of Project Dragonfly, adding that its existence does not necessarily mean that it has approval from authorities and is not likely to launch anytime soon.

Work on Dragonfly is said to have accelerated after a meeting between Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai and a top Chinese government official last December, according to The Intercept.

Google and other US internet giants such as Facebook have made attempts to enter the lucrative Chinese market where the Great Firewall blocks access to their apps, website and services. Facebook for instance, recently registered a subsidiary late last month in Hangzhou, although the government approval was later withdrawn.

Google had previously operated in China with a censored version of a search engine in 2006 to 2010, but pulled out of the country after facing political backlash in the US.

Offering a censored search engine would reaffirm the growing view that US internet companies are increasingly willing to compromise on their supposed commitment to free speech for a chance to take a bite out of the Chinese market. The Chinese internet landscape is highly competitive, dominated by local companies such as Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. The release of a new search engine in China would pit Google against Baidu, which accounts for a nearly 70 percent share of the search market in China.

Google undertook a series of small steps in recent months such as the launch of an AI research centre in Beijing and an AI-based Sketch game on WeChat, where the program would guess what users have drawn.

The final step would be the launch of the search engine app according to The Intercept, although it did state that its release would depend on the Chinese government’s final approval and the release could be in six to nine months.

While the project might be in the works, it doesn’t look like it’s going to launch in the short term, according to the various reports. In the Reuters report an unnamed official from China’s cyberspace regulator confirms that Google and the regulator are discussing a modified search program, but added that the app is very unlikely to be launched this year.