Project Dragonfly: The Censorship Search Engine That Google Built

Canary. Photo by 4028mdk09.

According to leaked internal Google documents, The Intercept reported in August, “Google is planning to launch a censored version of its search engine in China that will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest.”

Its project code-name: Dragonfly. According to the leaked documents this is a project Google has been working on since ‘last spring” in 2017, then, in December, after Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, met with a “top Chinese official” the project was accelerated and will be an Android search app “the documents suggests, that is” a “joint venture” with a company that is unnamed, but presumed will be operated in China.

“However, much of the work on the Dragonfly project is being carried out at Google’s Mountain View headquarters in California … in the heart of Silicon Valley” along with other participating “teams” out of Google’s “New York, San Francisco, Sunnyvale, Santa Barbara, Cambridge, Washington, D.C., Shanghai, Beijing, and Tokyo” offices.

It has been 10 years, the report says, since a Google search engine has operated in China and its “service cannot currently be accessed by most internet users in China because it is blocked by the country’s so-called Great Firewall.”

The app Google is building for China will comply with the country’s strict censorship laws, restricting access to content that Xi Jinping’s Communist Party regime deems unfavorable.

The Chinese government blocks information on the internet about political opponents, free speech, sex, news, and academic studies. It bans websites about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, for instance, and references to “anticommunism” and “dissidents.” Mentions of books that negatively portray authoritarian governments, like George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, have been prohibited on Weibo, a Chinese social media website. The country also censors popular Western social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as American news organizations such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

The Intercept; Aug 1 2018

Between 2006-2010 Google ran a “censored” search engine in China, but they wouldn’t pull out until March 2010 even amid growing controversy for their participation in what was seen as being a “functionary of the Chinese government” in their censorship of their citizens.

In 2006 there was a congressional hearing [see below] on “Operations of U.S. Internet Companies in China,” during which Google was accused of “abhorrent actions” and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ, R) said, “Google has seriously compromised its ‘don’t be evil’ policy’ … indeed, it has become evil’s accomplice.”

It wasn’t until March 2010 Google pulled their service out of China claiming in one of their blog posts that they “and more than twenty other U.S. companies had been “the victims” of a sophisticated cyber attack originating from China” that had led them “to conclude the we could no longer continue censoring our results on” and were moving their Chinese internet search engine to Hong Kong.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin said in a 2010 interview with the New York Times it was his “upbringing in USSR” that “helped ‘shape’ Google’s views on China,” that “living under a totalitarian system that censored political speech influenced his thinking – and Google’s policy.” Though Google’s own blog posted cited the attack originated in China, Brin “stopped short” in his interview with the NYTs saying the government was involved.

Since then, however, censorship and surveillance in China has become more pervasive. In 2016, the country’s government passed a new cybersecurity law, which Human Rights Watch said “strengthens censorship, surveillance, and other controls over the internet.” The government is using new automated systems to monitor and censor the internet, and it has cracked down on privacy technologies that Chinese people were using to circumvent the restrictions.

“It has been a requirement that companies operating in China must be prepared to police their users and turn over user data to security agencies upon request,” said Ron Deibert, director of Citizen Lab, an internet research group based at the University of Toronto. “We have also found overall that internet censorship [in China] is evolving towards less transparency, with less notification to users when messages are censored or removed across all platforms.”

The Intercept

Internal documents the Intercept says they have seen are marked “Google confidential” and will “filter and identify” those searches who the CCP already ban with their ‘Great Firewall’ and will move those searches from first page searches and a disclaimer will be added saying, “some results may have been removed due to statutory requirements.” The British BBC and Wikipedia were cited as examples in the documents that would be censored.

Knowledge about the project Dragonfly has been “restricted to just a few hundred members” within the 88,000 employees of Google. The Intercept’s source spoke to them on condition of anonymity. The source, they said, believed “they had a moral and ethical concerns about Google’s role in the censorship,” planned with only “a handful of top executives and managers at the company with no public scrutiny.”

“I’m against large companies and governments collaborating in the oppression of their people, and feel like transparency around what’s being done is in the public interest,” adding, The Intercept says the source continues, “what is done in China will become a template for many other nations.”

The reasons for Google’s reversal are not specifically known, but speculation asserts that one reason maybe be because China now has “more than 750 million internet users, equivalent to the entire population of Europe,” the “revenue stream” is “likely one factor in its decision to relaunch” its search engine in China.

Another speculation is that “the company’s leadership structure has markedly changed,” that even though co-founders Binn and Larry Page still serve on the board of directors of Google, they have “adopted less hands-on roles.”

CEO Sundar Pichai took over in 2015 as the head of Google and their “China rapprochement” is being led by Pichai, that some say in a 2016 conference he telegraphed his intentions when he said, “I care about servicing users globally in every corner. Google is for everyone…we want to be in China serving Chinese users.”

Pichai traveled to China in December 2017 and met with top Chinese Communist official Wang Huning who is a top foreign policy adviser to CCP’s President Xi. Huning has been described as “China’s Kissinger.” According to sources, “Pichai is said to have viewed the meeting as a success.”

The same month, Google announced that it was launching an artificial intelligence research center in Beijing. That was followed in May 2018 with the release of a Google file management app for Chinese internet users. Then, in July, Google rolled out a “Guess The Sketch” game on WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging and social media platform.

The finale would be the launch of the search app — the Dragonfly project. According to sources familiar with the plans, timing for the app’s release will depend on two main factors: approval from the Chinese government and confidence within Google that its app will be better than the search service offered by its main competitor in China, Baidu.

Google insiders say that it is not known when the company will obtain the approval from officials in Beijing because an escalating trade war between the U.S. and China has slowed the process. However, Google’s search engine chief Ben Gomes told staff at a meeting last month that they must be ready to launch the Chinese search app at short notice, in the event that “suddenly the world changes or [President Donald Trump] decides his new best friend is Xi Jinping.”

The Intercept

On Nov 1, last Thursday, Bloomberg reported that after the initial Intercept report, Pichai claimed the “company’s controversial project” was just in “it’s early stages,” but is now saying it was an “experiment.”

*The hearing was in front of members of two House International Relations subcommittees who heard from the State Department, the internet industry, human rights’ advocates. (7hrs, 20mins))



On A Sid Note (Opinion)

We’ll just keep an eye on this one, see what we see with Mr. Pichai. I have been watching this Intercept piece for a while, waiting to see if it would move one way or another. Pichai seems to have admitted that his project Dragonfly did indeed exist. I’d posit a plan he’s been developing for a while, one that as “Project Chief” he pitched that helped him land him in his current position now as CEO in 2015.

Interesting he’s now walking it even further back from ‘early stages’ to now ‘experiment.’ He either lost his unnamed ‘joint venture’ partner *cough Chinese Communist Party regime cough* and they pulled the plug, or Google board of directors have put some breaks on it.

In another other On A Side Note: Mr. Pichai has an interesting company on his resume. I just discovered while writing this piece he worked for McKinsey & Company, which is a “Managing Consulting firm,” before joining Google. That is another little tidbit I’ve been following. McKinsey & Company has been doing a lot of work for the Saudi regime.

Here are just a couple nuggets I have on McKinsey since the murder of SA dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.


About the opinions in this article…

Any opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this website or of the other authors/contributors who write for it.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. ICYMI Tech News

Comments are closed.