At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this month, Karan Bhatia, Google’s VP of Public Policy, admitted that the company’s controversial plan to re-launch its search engine in China while complying with the country’s restrictive internet censorship laws had been underway, but said that that it had been cancelled.

The new Chinese version of Google would have blocked websites like Wikipedia and Facebook, as well as censoring results from search terms like “human rights” and allowing the government to spy on what users of the search engine were searching for.

Given that the country routinely imprisons people simply for sharing their views online, the planned project, started in conditions of secrecy, garnered much criticism once its existence became public knowledge.

Google in China

Google first launched its search engine in China, Google.cn in 2006. Even then results were censored by Google, but at that time, Google notified users when listings had been removed from the search results. (They also pointed out in response to criticisms that they similarly removed results from searches in Germany, France and the US in order to comply with local government regulations.)

In 2010 however, Google experienced a significant series of cyber-attacks originating from China, which, in addition to stealing source code, compromised the gmail accounts of prominent Chinese human rights activists (mostly living abroad). In response to these attacks, and what then-CEO Sergey Brin called “a broader pattern of Chinese surveillance of human rights activists,” the company discontinued their Chinese search engine, instead redirecting users to Google.hk, an uncensored version based in Hong Kong, which was almost immediately censored again from the Chinese end.

Back-Tracking On Promises

In the aftermath of the 2010 cyber-attacks, Google had promised that it would never support the censorship of the internet, but a year ago, in August 2018, a leaked internal memo revealed that the project, named “Dragonfly,” had been underway since May of 2017.

With the Chinese base of internet users having grown by 70% in the intervening years though, it appeared that Google reconsidered. According to critics, the potential revenue of a user-base of nearly 1 billion Chinese internet users was too attractive for Google to pass up, leading to their decision to build a prototype search engine that would comply with Chinese requirements for internet usage in that country.

Due to internal clashes with members of the Google privacy team however, it was reported to have been shut down by December of last year, but employees revealed as late as March of this year that work was still going forward, and that approximately 100 people were still assigned to it.

Public & Political Pressure

Since the exposure of their plan to build a censored search engine for China, Google has faced increasing pressure from both the public, political and non-governmental spheres, including groups such as Amnesty International, but had still not acknowledged that claims regarding the project were true.

Karan Bhatia’s testimony before the Senate Committee was the first public admission by Google that the project had existed, and that it had in fact been terminated.

Amnesty International has praised the efforts of the public, and of Google employees, in opposing the plan, and a Google spokesperson said in an interview that the company had no plans (now) to launch Search in China.