Google reportedly halts Chinese search project after internal row

18 Dec 2018158 Views

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Beijing business district. Image: © lily/Stock.adobe.com

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Google’s efforts to bring a censored search engine to China have allegedly been dealt a major blow.

Just last week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai answered a number of questions put to him by US officials, including some about the truth behind reports the company was working on a censored search product for the Chinese market.

At the time, Pichai said that the project was a limited internal effort.

Project Dragonfly grounded?

Yesterday (17 December), a report from investigative news source The Intercept said that Google has blocked access to an internal system it was using to build the proposed search engine, which essentially means Project Dragonfly is closed.

According to sources at the company, a rift regarding the internal data analysis system used by engineers was the catalyst for the effective end of the project. Members of Google’s privacy team raised complaints internally after the use of the system in question had been kept from them.

Privacy executives then reportedly confronted other team members about the data gathered from 265.com, a website based in Beijing, which Google purchased in 2008. Search queries on 265.com are redirected to Baidu, the most popular search engine in China.

The data from the site let engineers see what search queries emanating from mainland China would look like, with a view to helping Google improve the potential accuracy of its search results. Normally, analysis of search queries is a highly regulated area, which is closely reviewed by privacy staff. Following the discovery, access to the data from 265.com was shut off.

Chinese endeavour caused controversy

Rumours of Project Dragonfly had previously galvanised some Google employees into protesting, with other members of staff even resigning over the prospect of creating a censored search engine.

When asked for comment about the alleged scrapping of the project, a Google spokesperson again pointed to Pichai’s congressional testimony, where he said the company has “no plans” to launch such a project. They did acknowledge that the project did, at one point, have more than 100 people working on it.

Several groups of engineers are said to have been moved off the project completely and are now focusing on projects related to countries such as Russia, Brazil and India.

Ellen Tannam is a writer covering all manner of business and tech subjects

editorial@siliconrepublic.com