Google’s core search engine has not been available in China since 2010, when the company refused to follow Middle Kingdom regulations.
According to a report by The Intercept, based on documents that it said were supplied by an anonymous whistle-blower, Google has been preparing search options that would comply with Chinese strictures. Since 2017, it has been developing a project called Dragonfly, according to the report.
Built as an Android mobile app, Dragonfly would reportedly blacklist “sensitive queries.” That means it would filter out search results from websites currently blocked by Chinese censors. The censorship would extend to features including Google’s image search, spell check, and suggested search.
The Intercept’s report said Dragonfly has already been shown to the Chinese government. A final version could be ready within six to nine months, pending Chinese approvals.
“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,” Google said in a statement emailed to Variety.
Google currently offers Chinese-language search from Hong Kong, which operates under a partially separate jurisdiction from mainland China, but its results may be inaccessible to most ordinary web users in China.
If Google moves forward with the censored search project, it would be a significant reversal of the company’s policy. When exiting China in 2010, Google said the government was seeking to “limit free speech on the web.” Google’s potential reentry into China has already attracted criticism from human rights organization Amnesty International.
Since 2010, China has stepped up its control of the internet within its own borders and cracked down on freedom of expression. In addition to a formidable technological arsenal deployed to scrub the Internet and social media of any viewpoint that undermines a “harmonious society” as determined by the ruling Communist Party, China also requires web companies to be self-policing. Since mid-2017, any company operating inside China and holding even mundane data on Chinese citizens is also required to place its servers within the country.
The potential move by Google may reflect a conclusion that China and its 772 million internet users are too big for a major tech company to ignore.
The Nasdaq-traded shares of Baidu, China’s leading search provider, dipped Wednesday by more than 7% on the news of Google as a potential rival on its home turf. They have since recovered nearly all lost ground.
The trade war between China and the U.S. could be a factor in any regulatory decision to let Google operate in China. Only last month Facebook was last month granted a business license to set up an innovation hub in the city of Hangzhou. That appeared to be the product of years of business-diplomatic initiatives in China by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. However, the permit appears to have been withdrawn just days later.
China is currently undergoing a change of personnel within its Internet regulatory structure. The Cyberspace Authority of China was publicly criticized for not being strict enough. A new head of the CAC was appointed Wednesday. Earlier this week, a former head of the CAC was charged with corruption.