When Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies before Congress next week, he will likely have to address questions about Google’s plans for a censored search engine in China.
Since the secret project called “Dragonfly” was exposed in August, the search giant has faced fierce criticism from human rights groups, lawmakers and some employees. An open letter published this week titled “We are Google employees. Google must drop Dragonfly” has attracted more than 600 employees’ signatures.
Most of the tech giant’s more than 88,000 employees have stayed silent. And if you look at the signatures on the public letter, there are few Chinese names. While some opt to keep their opinion of the project private because they want to maintain a low profile and others are still weighing both sides, some employees said they support the project and their experience living and receiving education in China give them different perspectives from their non-Chinese colleagues.
Three Chinese employees of Google in the U.S. spoke to Yahoo Finance on the condition of anonymity and explained why they think Google’s argument for a censored search engine in China makes sense.
A need for an alternative
At the center of Google’s argument to re-enter China is to provide users with a new, and possibly better search engine. Some Chinese employees agree with their employer on this.
“I’m not just a Google employee, I’m also the future customer of the potential search engine Google is developing for China when I visit home,” a software engineer at Google told Yahoo Finance. “Baidu’s technology and ethics are not very impressive. If Google could make a comeback to China, it could challenge Baidu’s monopoly and I’ll benefit as a customer.”
Baidu, known as “China’s Google”, dominates nearly 70% of China’s search engine market, according to StatCounter Global Stats. But in China, not everyone is a fan of Baidu, which has a notorious bidding rank system that puts prevalent advertisements on the top of search results.
Another Google employee believes a new search engine, even a censored one by the government, could help the older generation in China to vet and filter information. Like other search engines, Baidu draws nearly all its revenues from ads, and an estimated 30% of that comes from medical advertising. The Nasdaq-listed company drew public outrage in 2016 when a 21-year-old died from a rare form of cancer after receiving treatment from a hospital whose ads appeared on top of the list on his Baidu search.
Already heavily censored
Eight years ago, Google exited the Chinese market because of censorship and hacks. Today, China’s internet is more tightly controlled than ever.
Some U.S. tech giants have bowed to censorship in the country. LinkedIn, the Microsoft-owned networking site, has restricted certain topics of discussion, including the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre, for its Chinese users. Apple has removed VPN apps in its Chinese app store, a tool widely used to bypass internet censorship.
Most censored platforms remain popular in China, and some Google employees say censorship shouldn’t be the dealbreaker for Dragonfly. “Americans are very sensitive to censorship. They think it’s unacceptable, and they won’t develop or make such products. But Chinese people are more likely to accept it,” one employee said.
Surveillance is pretty much a known fact in China. WeChat, the most popular messaging app which touts 1 billion users, blocks private messages containing politically sensitive keywords. When users search certain topics related to politics, human rights and religions on Baidu or Weibo (China’s Twitter), they get a message that reads, “According to the relevant laws and regulations, search results for [this phrase] cannot be displayed.”
Another worker argued that since Chinese users’ data have been monitored by existing search engines, there is not much harm for Google to join the league but just be more responsible and provide a better product for users.
“Not doing it is actually being evil,” said one employee, referring to Google's "Don't Be Evil" mantra. “If you can provide a search engine better than the existing one, you can’t drop it just because it’s not perfect.”
New revenue stream
China is a business opportunity for Google, the three employees point out. China has more than 800 million internet users and a $3 billion search engine market. The potential is huge as the giant’s home market is maturing.
And if Google succeeds financially, so will its investors and employees. Compensation at tech firms is closely tied to the performance of the company’s stock. This year, the stock is only up by 3.7%, a huge contrast from its bull run in 2016.
While Dragonfly is a controversial project that may have a negative impact on Google’s reputation and create more uncertainties as the company may need to deal with the Chinese government, some employees said it’s a risk worth taking.
“A business project can’t be 100% risk-free and satisfy everyone,” said one employee. “We can’t be too idealistic.”