by Elton Gomes
Google is reportedly planning to launch a censored version of its search engine in China. The censored version will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protests, according to a report in the Intercept.
Citing internal documents and people privy to the matter, the Intercept reported that the project, code-named Dragonfly, has been in progress since spring of 2017. In December 2017, the project was boosted after Google’s CEO Sudar Pichai met a top official from the Chinese government.
Google’s programmers and engineers have developed a custom Android app, and different versions of the app have been named as “Maotai” and “Longfei.” The Chinese government has already witnessed a demo of the app, and subject to the government’s approval, the final version could be launched within the next six to nine months, the Intercept reported.
The censored search engine will reportedly “blacklist sensitive queries” and filter all websites that have been blocked by China’s web censors (including Wikipedia and BBC News). The censorship will also extend to Google’s image search, spell check, and suggested search features.
Google’s re-entry into China could see it competing with Baidu, who has been dominant player since long in the Chinese market. When asked about the company’s future plans for the Chinese market, a Google spokesperson said that the company “does not comment on speculation about future plans,” as reported by the South China Morning Post.
What this means for free speech
The Chinese government has blocked a host of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have also been censored in China. Additionally, information on the internet about political opponents, free speech, sex, news, and academic studies has been blocked. Websites about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and references to “anticommunism” and “dissidents” have been banned.
Experts are of the opinion that Google’s decision to agree to China’s censorship could be an affront to free speech. Patrick Poon, a Hong Kong-based researcher with human rights group Amnesty International, spoke to the Intercept and said that Google’s decision to comply with censorship will be “a big disaster for the information age.”
“The biggest search engine in the world obeying the censorship in China is a victory for the Chinese government – it sends a signal that nobody will bother to challenge the censorship any more,” Poon said.
Google previously attempted to offer censored search engines in China between 2006 and 2010, but it pulled out after facing flak from US politicians who said that Google was acting as a “functionary of the Chinese government.”
China’s relationship with Google
In December 2014, Google’s Gmail was blocked in China after it faced several disruptions. An anti-censorship advocated claimed that China’s Great Firewall was to blame.
As per a 2016 report in the Atlantic, censorship was the reason why Google decided to leave the Chinese market. Google shuttered its operations in China after discovering that a cyberattack from China had targeted it and several other companies. While investigating the attack, Google found that Gmail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists were hacked.
In October 2016, Beijing said that both Google and Facebook could return to China as long as they “respect China’s laws.”
A reporter asked Ren Xianliang, deputy director of the Cyberspace Administration of China, which oversees internet governance, whether the government would allow Google and Facebook to enter China.
Ren replied, “As for foreign internet companies, as long as they respect China’s laws, don’t harm the interests of the country, and don’t harm the interests of consumers, we welcome them to enter China, where they can together share the benefits of China’s developing internet,” as per an article in Quartz.
The Chinese government has had a lengthy history of internet censorship. Google’s decision to censor its search engine could be a step in the wrong direction.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius
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