Google Gives up Secret Search Engine to China, at Least for Now
The Dragonfly development team has been assigned to new projects. The work was based on data collected from the Chinese site 265.com, the only one owned by Google and licensed in the country.
The year 2018 has been a better year for Google than for Facebook, mediately speaking. However, the Mountain View giant has faced two major controversies. On the one hand, there was Project Maven, which was a collaboration with the Pentagon with military drones, and which is supposedly canceled.
On the other hand, it was the Project Dragonfly, where Google wanted to return with a search engine that worked with the censorship imposed by the iron regime of Xi Jinping.
It has just taken an unexpected turn, although some of us expected this move after the appearance of Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, before the United States Congress. According to information from The Intercept, Google would have canceled everything related to Project Dragonfly, the censored search engine for China that would represent the return of the company to that country after its departure in 2010.
After Sundar Pichai told US lawmakers that Google had no plans to develop a search engine for China, it is now known, through two alleged sources close to the project, that the company has decided to stop Dragonfly pointing to it “effectively concluded.”
The project timeline
Since August this year, Google’s own sources have leaked information about “Dragonfly,” a supposedly customized search engine for the Chinese market that works according to government censorship. Meanwhile, a number of other human rights officials and organizations have come out against this initiative, which, according to the developers themselves, hurt users’ privacy for account monitoring.
In October, CEO Sundar Pichai confirmed the existence of Dragonfly and later explained that the software was an experiment supposed to evaluate different types of filters for the company’s already well-known and extensive mechanism. Well, the thing did not stick very well, and the parent company Alphabet itself criticized the program. At the time of his departure, the co-founder of Google, Sergey Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union, justified the withdrawal of this market in the name of “totalitarianism” of Chinese politics.
At the end of November, there was a manifesto from the Mountain View company’ professionals and internal criticism increased, as well as pressure on executives.
The privacy team at Google would have been the culprit
According to the information, Google’s internal privacy team would have forced the closure of the data analysis system they had been using to give life to ‘Dragonfly.’ The system consisted of using all the information collected by the site ‘265.com’, which is a web directory service based in Beijing. It has its own search engine, which is redirected to Baidu, the largest and most popular search engine in China.
It is said that Google acquired 265.com in 2008 and today it is used as a ‘honeypot’ for market studies, where information about the searches the searches of Chinese users is stored before sending it to Baidu.
Through this site, it is like Google would have created its own blacklists for the search engine, where large categories of information related to democracy, human rights, and peaceful protests were blocked, all in accordance with the strict rules on the censorship in China. With all this information, they would have created the first prototype of Dragonfly.
Those responsible for the project said to be senior managers of the company, including Sundar Pichai, would have hidden the existence of ‘Dragonfly’ and the use that was being given to ‘265.com’ by the Google privacy team, this with the aim of avoiding revision processes related to user data.
It is said that the Google privacy team learned of the existence of Dragonfly last August after the first leaks, and from that moment they would have decided to confront those responsible for the project. The team demanded that Google should stop using the search data extracted from ‘265.com’, and instead rely on other sources, such as global search terms.
With these changes, and in the absence of relevant data to know the Chinese market and its operation under censorship, the team decided to stop the progress of Dragonfly, whose launch is planned between January and April 2019. Today’s information suggests that several engineers have been reassigned to other projects with search engines from Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, and other countries.
Entities celebrate, but with reservations
Non-governmental organizations welcomed Google’s decision, but Amnesty International’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo was emphatic in saying that the company did not end the project for the most appropriate reasons.
“It is disturbing that the reports indicate that Project Dragonfly has been closed because of discrepancies in internal processes, not human rights concerns,” he said. “We’ve heard that Google is finally dropping Dragonfly. If true, we welcome the news, but this project should never have seen the light of day. Google should use its platform to defend free speech – not help governments restrict it.”
We're hearing Google is finally dropping Dragonfly. If true, we welcome the news, but this project should never have seen the light of day. Google should be using its considerable platform to champion freedom of expression, not help governments curtail it. https://t.co/orZbHTUmIG
— Kumi Naidoo (@kuminaidoo) December 17, 2018
According to the sources, and following the line of what Pichai mentioned a few days ago, Google is still interested in serving the Chinese. In the end, it is a market of more than 800 million inhabitants and potential users. It is believed that Project Dragonfly is not completely dead, but that it is a short-term pause in the storm that keeps Google in the eye of the hurricane.