Would you turn down the opportunity to reach a third of the world’s population?
This is a question that has Google employees divided on whether or not to re-enter the Chinese market after an 8-year absence from the Communist-controlled nation.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai revealed at a conference in San Francisco on Tuesday that the search engine was, in fact, working on a project to relaunch Google China; plans for the project were previously leaked by The Intercept back in August and caused shockwaves across Silicon Valley.
It’s called “Project Dragonfly” and would allow the Chinese government to closely track citizens and have complete access to their data. In order for the government to have streamlined data collection on Chinese citizens who use the tool, they will need to log into a portal. Search results will also be heavily censored in order to block content deemed offensive by President Xi Jinping’s regime.
Side-by-side comparison of Google.cn image search results for “Tiananmen” in 2010 compared to uncensored results that rank the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Google.cn went down back in 2010 after a Chinese government-affiliated group hacked the Gmail accounts of human rights activists the year before. The search engine had operated in the country since 2006 up until then, albeit a censored version. Moving into China the first time was even more controversial then, with Google receiving widespread backlash for reneging on their “Don’t Be Evil” motto. However, the Gmail hack tilted the scale in which they judged “villainy” so much that Google gave the Chinese government an ultimatum to either allow censorship-free search engine tool or none at all…and this is where we are now.
The New Google.cn
Google researcher Jack Poulson resigned in protest due to his “ethical responsibility to resign in protest of the forfeiture of our public human rights commitments,” among other resignations because they argue it goes against the company’s AI manifesto.
Despite more internal backlash from Googlers over considering allowing censorship again, Pichai did not confirm a return to China was inevitable in an interview with Wired, but that the company was simply interested in exploring what a new Google.cn would look like. He also stated that 99% of content in search results would still be available.
It’s no surprise that Google is looking to return to China because, with 800 million internet users, it’s a goldmine of user data and Adwords dollars that’s eluded the company for almost a decade. The return would also elevate the search engine to a truly unprecedented level almost overnight considering Google’s capabilities compared to 2010, in regards to advancements in RankBrain’s (mind you this is a Google.cn that would be post-Panda and Penguin updates) and the ever-evolving Google Ads network.
The benefit for China allowing the creation of a new iteration of Google.cn is a bit more nefarious.
China is developing the world’s first Social Credit System that will limit the freedoms of their citizens for everything from travel by plane to owning a pet. The system is set to be rolled out in 2020 and will usher in an era of mass surveillance using big data analysis.
Access to track individual user data that is not anonymized on a Google platform that would be almost identical to those in other countries will allow for not only quantitive data collection such as location and spending habits but also qualitative data such as their interests (plays soccer, likes action movies, etc.).
Beyond using Search, Google’s venture in IoT technology with the release of Google Home and more devices to come, it’s feasible that the Chinese government would be able to track everyday citizens 24/7 without having to actually install security cameras in your home.