Is Google planning to launch a censored search engine in China?

2 Aug 2018

Google search on a mobile phone. Image: mirtmirt/Shutterstock

Google is working on a censored version of its search engine for the Chinese market, meaning sites and search terms on certain topics will be blacklisted.

A report from The Intercept shocked many when it revealed that Google is poised to make a return to the Chinese market after it withdrew its search service back in 2010.

Google originally withdrew from China as censorship pressure mounted, but this time around it looks like the company will be developing a diluted version of its search engine for use in the country. The project is said to be a partnership with an as yet unnamed Chinese firm.

Western services will be blocked

According to the report, the product will apparently block western services such as Facebook and Twitter, which are among the many platforms outlawed in the country.

The search engine will scrub for sensitive terms such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, and international media publications such as The New York Times and even Wikipedia will be omitted from search results.

A spokesperson for Google said it did not comment on speculation about future plans.

The insider who supplied the information to The Intercept said the project is codenamed Dragonfly and only a number of high-level figures at Google have knowledge of it.

The Intercept said the source gave the details as they were concerned that the project could “set a terrible precedent for many other companies who are still trying to do business in China while maintaining the principles of not succumbing to China’s censorship”.

A Google news app for Chinese users?

According to a source who spoke to The Information, Google is also planning on developing a government-friendly news app for Chinese users. Apparently, Google is cloning popular app Toutiao, a news aggregator used in the country.

Similar to Toutiao, the Google app may serve stories to readers using AI as opposed to human overseers. The news app is apparently slated for release ahead of the search engine. It may prove difficult, though, considering the ongoing trade war between the US and China.

Google has slowly been increasing its presence in China, opening an AI lab in Beijing and inking major deals with and Tencent.

While the country’s hundreds of millions of users present a massive opportunity in terms of revenue for the firm, creating products that censor free speech and content around peaceful protest, sex, politics and other topics deemed unfavourable by Xi Jinping’s government is causing consternation and raising questions about the future of internet freedom.

Google search on a mobile phone. Image: mirtmirt/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects