Google (GOOG, GOOGL) has been facing increased scrutiny from politicians and human rights groups since The Intercept revealed the company may soon reenter the Chinese market with a search engine that blocks queries for terms including freedom of speech, religion and democracy.
And while Google says the project is still in its exploratory phases, one former Google software engineer says he wouldn’t be surprised if the so-called Dragonfly search engine moved forward despite the potential backlash.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” ex-Googler Vijay Boyapati, who now works at a cryptocurrency startup, said in an interview with Yahoo Finance. “I think that’s it’s a public company, and the market is too big for them to give up.”
Meanwhile, former Google security team member Brandon Downey worked on a similar project in 2006 and now regrets that work, calling it “wrong.”
In a statement, a Google spokesperson said of Dragonfly: “We’ve been investing for many years to help Chinese users, from developing Android, through mobile apps such as Google Translate and Files Go, and our developer tools. But our work on search has been exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China.”
Dragonfly and Google’s China efforts
Boyapati has firsthand insight into Google’s history with China and its censorship issues. In 2006, he says, Google asked him to work on a censorship filter for its original Chinese search engine — but he openly objected to the project.
“When I worked at Google, as an engineer in Google News, I was asked to write code to censor news articles in China (circa 2006),” Boyapati tweeted on Sunday. “I refused and they took me off the project and put someone else on it. Doesn’t surprise me Google is back at it. ‘Don’t be Evil’ is a Google myth,’ ” he added.
Boyapati, who worked at Google from 2002 until 2007, was tweeting in response to a follow-up story by The Intercept, which explained that a prototype of Google’s Dragonfly search engine could link users’ searches to their phone numbers. That, in turn, could make it easier for Chinese authorities to identify people searching for banned topics.
The report also indicates that China could use Dragonfly to replace air pollution information in online news reports, giving the appearance that pollution levels aren’t as dangerous as they actually are — something China has already been accused of.
“While I do not have access to primary sources, the plan to filter the search engine seems pretty similar to 2006,” Downey, who now works as a senior security engineer in Silicon Valley, explained. “What I’ve read about a potential news site or app is more alarming; the idea that Google would be providing fake news about air quality in order to curry favor with the Chinese government is new, and I think actively dangerous for users.”
In an online essay, Downey wrote that he helped work on Google’s original system to blacklist certain terms during the company’s first foray into China in 2006. Initially, Downey wrote, he believed a censored search engine would serve China better than no search engine at all — but he later changed his mind.
Downey, however, still feels that Google’s introduction of its Android mobile operating system to China and its research center in the country are positive moves.
Google News censorship
Google’s China-specific search engine, Google.cn, launched in 2006 as a means for the company to stay in the country while abiding by its strict censorship rules. Google’s normal search engine was still technically available, but it was heavily filtered by China’s Great Firewall, a system of blocks that lets the government control the web content Chinese citizens can view.
Around that time, Boyapati says his manager approached him to work on a system to filter out certain topics in the Chinese version of Google News.
Boyapati responded by telling his boss he wouldn’t be comfortable with such a project, he says. “At the time I was a little worried I was going to get fired,” he said. “It’s a job still. You’re supposed to do what your boss tells you.”
At a subsequent all-hands meeting, Boyapati said he stood up and expressed his distaste for the project.
“I said I think that it’s kind if disgraceful what we are doing, and that we are doing it without having any discussion about it. I just said I think it’s morally wrong that we are doing it.”
Boyapati was subsequently moved to another project.
Google eventually bailed on the project in 2010 amid China’s accusations that the company allowed pornography on its search engine. A sophisticated hacking attempt on Google that originated in China was the last straw and the company stopped censoring content there.
Shortly thereafter, Google pulled its operations from the mainland.
Google’s future in China
While Google says it’s only exploring a new search engine for the Chinese market, the tech giant already has an existing presence in the country. Google recently launched a smartphone game for Chinese consumers and already operates Google Translate there.
From a business perspective, it makes sense that Google would want to establish a presence in China. After all, it’s the world’s most populous country with a growing middle class, and it’s becoming increasingly connected. To completely abandon China means ceding the country’s market to homegrown competitors like Baidu, China’s largest search engine.
But is it worth the risk for Google to head back to China after leaving on such bad terms? U.S. politicians have already lambasted the company for even considering working with the Chinese government again. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) issued a statement in August calling out Google for potentially working on a new Chinese search engine saying, “Google claims to value freedom and one hopes Google will put its corporate principles and America first, ahead of Chinese cash.”
Human rights groups, meanwhile, have said that blocking topics in the country would be tantamount to a human rights violation.
Downey, who helped work on the original censorship program for China, says that Google employees should step forward if they feel uncomfortable with developing products for Google to censor information in the country.
“I think people who have ethical problems with this plan should come forward if they think it will help,” he said. “I don’t support leaking your employer’s technical secrets, but at some point, that same secrecy should not be used as a shield to cover behavior which is bad for users or the world.”
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