Google employees push to kill censored search project
In 2010, Google pulled out of China dramatically citing a number of reasons including targeted attacks on infrastructure by the government with the ultimate goal of compromising Gmail accounts of Chinese activists. Now it's pushing back into the country with a project to build a censored government-friendly search engine.
What's going on? Over the last year we've seen a slew of reporting say that Google plans a reboot in China with a censored version of its search engine, and a near constant stream of leaks from the company's engineers balking at the idea of developing such a tool.
Employees aren't having it anymore, however, with a group of over 300 engineers publicaly signing a letter requesting executives kill the project, nicknamed 'Dragonfly' and protesting the move in partnership with Amnesty International:
Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be. The Chinese government certainly isn’t alone in its readiness to stifle freedom of expression, and to use surveillance to repress dissent. Dragonfly in China would establish a dangerous precedent at a volatile political moment, one that would make it harder for Google to deny other countries similar concessions.
Why is this happening? Back in 2010, when Google shut down in China it said that "We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn" and conceded that "this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China." That's exactly what happened, and Google has been unable to access one of the world's largest digital markets with any of its services since, ceding the entire market to companies like Baidu with little competition. Search, YouTube and Gmail are blocked in China, along with many others.
That has meant that Google isn't able to compete with everything from Android to its cloud platform, while its American-based competitors have slowly begun playing in the market as well. Apple, for example, relented to Chinese demands for iCloud hosting based in the country, and has been selling hardware there since 2013.
What's Google's stance? Google has largely attempted to remain secretive about the project, but the CEO spoke out in defense of Dragonfly in October, citing that the market is too big to ignore: “We are compelled by our mission [to] provide information to everyone, and [China is] 20 percent of the world's population.”
Essentially, that's a potential 20 percent boost in revenue the company could win by just playing in the country, and I don't think ignoring it is going to happen. These protests may increase in frequency and size, but a business is driven by money, rather than human values, even if the notion of a censored search engine feels like a slippery slope.
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Great long read: Ben Thompson's look at antitrust and the Apple App Store