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Why Google might return to China, even if it means censorship

This week, reports surfaced that Google is working on a search app and a news app that will be censored to comply with Chinese laws. The new software could be seen as a turnabout of the company’s previous stance against censorship that it has held for years, dating back to Google’s decision to effectively pull its search business out of China in 2010. Google, at the time, said it was standing up against censorship. So what has changed since 2010, and what has stayed the same?

The Intercept broke the news of a censored search app on Wednesday, which would “blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest.” Hours later on Wednesday, The Information reported on the news app. Both reports cite anonymous sources. The news app has been under development since last year, according to The Information, and Google has discussed it with Chinese authorities. It will use algorithms to customize content and is similar in style to a major Chinese news-aggregating app, Toutiao.

Both apps are under a project codenamed Dragonfly. The thinking behind the apps is that if Chinese authorities see the censored news app, they’ll be more receptive to allowing Google’s search engine back into the country again, which is the company’s real aim, sources told The Information.

The search engine app is made for Android and might be called “Maotai” or “Longfei.” Without the actual Chinese characters, it’s difficult to tell if Google is going for a pun here or a descriptive name. A final version could come in the next six to nine months if China’s major internet regulator approves. The timeline for the news app is more vague, so it looks like Google is going for a three-step plan here: launch the news app to keep authorities calm, then introduce the search app to garner interest in its services, and finally, bring its censored search engine platform fully back to China.

Google didn’t flat out deny the reports. It told The Verge in a statement today, “We provide a number of mobile apps in China, such as Google Translate and Files Go, help Chinese developers, and have made significant investments in Chinese companies like JD.com. But we don’t comment on speculation about future plans.”

Some Google employees responded in anger to the news on Wednesday. “WTF!” Google researcher Meredith Whittaker wrote in a since-deleted tweet that was spotted by several media outlets. “How enabling mass politically-directed censorship of (AI-enabled) search isn’t a violation of Article 19 & in turn a violation of Google’s pledge not to build tech that ‘contravenes widely accepted principles of…human rights’ is a mystery indeed.”

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International similarly posted a response, stating that this didn’t bode well for freedom of information and internet freedom. “In putting profits before human rights, Google would be setting a chilling precedent and handing the Chinese government a victory,” China researcher Patrick Poon wrote. “This also raises serious questions as to what safeguards Google is putting in place to protect users’ privacy. Would Google rollover and hand over personal data should the Chinese authorities request it?”

Yet Google isn’t necessarily setting a precedent. Many tech companies already do business with China and those that choose to operate in the country have to deal with the numerous regulations, which often involves censoring information from residents.

Google’s decision to leave China in 2010 made it an outlier, the exception to a simple rule: doing business in China is profitable. So what happened in 2010 to lead it down this road?

Google first launched a fairly censored version of its search engine in China in 2006 and operated successfully within the country until 2010. In January 2010, Google discovered a sophisticated phishing attack in China on its infrastructure, targeting the information of Chinese human rights activists, including email addresses. The attack prompted Google to switch gears on how it was operating in China and move toward offering an uncensored version of its search engine that was based in Hong Kong, all the while acknowledging that such a version might not sit well with Beijing. As expected, it didn’t.

So why is this happening now, then? Silicon Valley is dealing with a different global landscape now. Tech giants have pretty much expanded their products and services throughout the US, Canada, and European and Asian countries. By cutting itself out of China, Google has lost a seriously valuable territory with 772 million internet users in exchange for the status symbol of being an advocate of free speech. Unfortunately, symbolism doesn’t contribute to earnings growth.

Google’s leadership has also changed. It’s quite likely that current CEO Sundar Pichai sees China differently than Google co-founder Sergey Brin who grew up in the former Soviet Union and had said in 2010 that China bore the “same earmarks of totalitarianism,” which he found to be troubling. Pichai, on the other hand, has hinted at his interest in China, appearing as a surprise guest in China’s internet conference last December and attending Beijing’s development forum in March to praise China’s progress in AI.

AI recruitment might be playing a role here, too. Sources tell The Verge that the ongoing AI rivalry between the US and China is largely a matter of recruiting enough global talent. Recruiting more Chinese workers could help Google stay ahead of the game.

What hasn’t changed is China’s internet censorship. It remains staunch and has even intensified over recent years. Many activists are still threatened by censorship efforts and even have to go into hiding to avoid arrest.

Now that Google has spent eight years out of China and recruited employees who were attracted to the tech giant for its symbolic position as a protector of democracy, it could be harder to make a return. China’s domestic search engine Baidu is bigger than ever, and in 2010, it already outpaced Google in China.

There are also geopolitical tensions to consider, especially with the ongoing tariff war between China and the US. Will the Chinese government even allow Google to return? Just last week, Facebook looked to have a business license to open a subsidiary in China, and a day later, the license was pulled and the news was censored. Sources told The Information that Google executives have so far struggled to get China’s Cyberspace Administration to co-sign Project Dragonfly. A Wednesday report from the state-owned China Securities Daily denied that Google would return to China, citing “relevant departments.”

And finally, there’s the possibility that backlash from employees, the public, or both will drive Google to reconsider or pull out of these development plans, echoing the role they played back in 2010 in encouraging the search giant to fight censorship.


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