Ever since Google closed down its search engine in China in 2010, it has been missing out on a huge market potential. Now Google plans to tap on the country’s market once again but the question arises, why didn’t Google look at China for so long?
It’s because of censorship and security issues.
Google shut down in China after a series of cyber attacks, also known as Operation Aurora, struck several companies, including Google. In these attacks, hackers broke through the Gmail accounts of human rights activists in China.
Google had to withdraw its operations from the country ever since. If internet companies have to operate in a nation, they have to follow the local laws, which can be difficult, especially in countries where there are strict censorships.
Google Will be Back in China
In 2010, Google announced that its search engine will leave China because of the company’s “do no evil” principle. And now, Google is planning to return to the country with a project called Dragonfly. It’s a search engine that has been specifically censored according to Chinese rules.
The Chinese government doesn’t let people access “regular” websites that are available in the west. It also bans VPNs so that the locals cannot access any blocked content. However, if you’re a visitor traveling to China, you can pre-install a VPN on your device before coming and can access the geo-blocked websites.
Currently, Google is hiring in China for its re-entry and it also plans to launch its app store that will have only the government permitted apps to be run on Android devices. Google has opened several positions including software engineers, public relations managers, and advertising specialists.
Dragonfly is the moniker for Google’s project in China. The company has been working on it since spring last year and processes have sped up after the December 2017 conference between Chinese government officials and Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
Google engineers and programmers have created an Android search app that has different versions. Earlier known as Longfei or Maotai, it has been revealed to the Chinese officials. The final version of the app is predicted to be launched in coming 6-9 months, depending on the time it takes to get approval from the Chinese authorities.
The Chinese government effectively blocks all online information that goes against its political stand. This includes details about their political opponents and free speech along with sex-related news and some academic studies.
Any discussion about the extremely infamous 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre has been banned and any websites that refer to this incident are blocked in China. Discussion boards or websites that promote anticommunist views or dissidence are also banned.
Apart from that, any mention of books that go against authoritarian governments is banned as well. For example, George Orwell’s Animal Farm has been barred on Weibo, a microblogging website in China.
A majority of western social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram along with news websites such as WSJ and NY Times are blocked in China.
How Dragonfly will Work with Chinese Censorship
The Chinese search engine app by Google will identify the websites that are banned by Chinese authorities and filter them accordingly. When someone searches for a phrase, the search engine will remove the banned websites from the first page.
There are also some queries that will be blacklisted and there will be no results for them. This censorship will apply on all Google platforms including image search, suggested searches, and automatic spell checks.
This means that any information that has been banned by the government will remain completely inaccessible to the locals. People will not be able to find sensitive information on Google images or even in Google suggestions.
Initially, this search engine will be available as an Android app and it’s not clear whether there will be a desktop version as well. The company is focusing on the app so that a large part of the Chinese population will be able to access it.
The decision of launching a restricted search engine in China hasn’t come without criticism. When Google announced its plan to launch a Chinese search engine, 1,400 Google employees stood against this decision and signed a petition that denounced the Project Dragonfly. They demanded transparency and wanted to understand the ethical consequences of the projects in which they’re working.
Google’s plans to launch a restricted search facility has also attracted the attention of human rights activists who are concerned that Google might block foreign websites including social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Patrick Poon, a human rights activist in Hong Kong, said that the decision by Google to follow Chinese censorship is a disaster for the age of information technology.
He said, “This has very serious implications not just for China, but for all of us, for freedom of information and internet freedom. It will 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. 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.”
There are some other challenges as well. Ever since Google left the Chinese market, local competitors have risen. This includes the main Chinese search engine, Baidu. Since the locals have been using other search engines after Google left, the tech giant will have to start building a market from scratch.
China might be a difficult market for Google, but the company is all set to utilize the potential of the Chinese market. While the country has always had strict rules, the censorship has tightened further in the era of President Xi Jinping.
Google will need many resources to make sure that the censorship rules of the country are not broken. Failing to implement those rules can have serious results. China revoked the rights of over 3000 websites in just the first six months of 2018 because they could not comply with the censorship rules.
While Google might be a huge brand name for people in the rest of the world, the new generation in China would be mostly unaware of it. In such a market, creating a situation that matches Google’s position in the rest of the world might be a difficult battle.
Users of Chinese social media channels have welcomed this move from Google as it would give tough competition to Baidu that has been brought down due to scandals over its search results for medical treatments. There has been some criticism from Chinese users as well, creating mixed emotions in the Chinese user base.