There is a lot of money to be made in the massive Chinese market. But companies who enter it, risk compromising their ethics in ways that tarnish their brand.
That is the lesson learned through the story of Google’s attempts to run search engines within China — a country with a highly repressive approach to information. Google was briefly China’s most popular search engine, but the controversies that ensued, including projects to develop search engines that were compatible with China’s censorship laws, ultimately led to the company’s retreat. Both China and Google wound up publicly embarrassed. With the acrimonious history now between them, it may be hard to imagine Google ever returning to the country.
Google’s Chinese search page, google.cn, launched in 2006 This version of their search engine would censor search results in order to comply with the Chinese censorship laws. This sparked a lot of debate very quickly.
At the time, there was already a fairly heated debate about how far foreign companies would be willing to go to comply with the Chinese censorship laws just so they could operate in China’s rapidly-growing internet market.
To try and ease any potential criticism, Google promised to inform users of this search engine when their results were being censored, which was something that many China-based search engines didn’t provide.
By the end of Google’s first year of service in China, it was reported that 62% of Chinese Internet users pick Baidu, a China-based search engine that rivaled Google, as their first choice. Only 25% of Chinese Internet users picked Google as their first choice, according to a September 2006 study by the China Internet Network Information Center.
In January 2009, Google was criticized by Chinese regulators for its availability of pornography on its search engines. No actions were taken against it until later that year in June. During that time, regulators “punished” Google China for not removing pronographic content by suspending the search engine’s ability to search foreign websites and its associative-word search function. This move drove many users away from Google to Baidu, the rivaling search engine.
Google began to regain popularity in August 2009 as China Mobile was preparing to launch its smartphones that used Google’s Android operating system. This put Google on par with Apple in China. With their regained popularity, Google seemed to be doing well in China, but it didn’t last for long.
From June to December of 2009, a series of cyber attacks arose which led Google China down a steep decline from there on out. Many of these cyberattacks were organized by a Chinese cyber espionage group called the Elderwood Group. This group would target many different people including defense organizations, supply chain manufacturers, human rights and nongovernmental organizations, and IT service providers. Throughout the attacks, the group had obtained some of Google’s source code and access to information about Chinese activists.
Google stated in a blog post on January 12, 2010 that the attacks were “highly sophisticated” and that they didn’t detect the attacks until mid-December. The post elaborates on how they originally thought it was just a security incident, but they soon found out this was an attack on not only them, but at least twenty other companies. The post also states that it seemed the main goal of the attacks was to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, although the attackers were only able to access two accounts. Even then, the only information that the attackers could access was information on the acount’s creation and the subject line of emails rather than the content of the email itself.
As a result of these attacks, Google stated in the same blog post that they would no longer continue to censor their results on google.cn and that they would pull out of the country if needed. Not too long after this, Google began redirecting all search queries from google.cn to google.com.hk, Google’s Hong Kong website, since it wasn’t subject to China’s censorship laws.
By mid-2010, Google China was no more and instead, Google provided a link to their Hong Kong page whenever anyone tried to access google.cn. As of 2014, Google Chrome, Gmail, and Google-based search inquiries haven’t been available to mainland China. Google still continues with their research development offices and sales offices in China as they still produce Google products like Android smartphone software.
For a period of time after that, not much was heard from Google in China. Until 2018.
On August 1st, 2018, the Intercept published an article titled “Google Plans to Launch Censored Search Engine in China, Leaked Documents Reveal.” The article reported that a project – code-named Dragonfly – had been in progress since spring 2017. The project was a search engine that was a custom Android app. It would identify and filter websites that are blocked by China’s Great Firewall such as BBC and Wikipedia. The search engine would also blacklist certain queries that are deemed “too sensitive” so no results would be shown when certain words or phrases are searched for.
About a month and a half later, the Intercept reported once again on the project, this time on an internal memo that was circulating inside Google that revealed many more details about the project. The memo was from a Google engineer who disclosed that the search engine would require its users to log in to search and the engine would track the user’s location. It would also share the history with a Chinese partner who would have access to all the data. Because of this, Google was accused of developing tools that allowed the Chinese government to spy on and monitor its citizens.
At the end of November that year, more than 240 employees from Google had signed an open letter in protest of the continuation of project Dragonfly. The letter was posted to Medium and it stated that their opposition wasn’t about China, but rather how they “object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable”. The letter also spoke on how the employees felt it didn’t align with the company they agreed to work for and how abusing human rights by causing oppression among Chinese citizens wasn’t a part of Google’s company values.
Shortly after The Intercept published its article on it, the letter gained over 1400 signatures from Google employees.
On December 17th, 2018, the Intercept reported that project Dragonfly had been shut down due to a conflict about privacy within Google. According to the article published by the Intercept, engineers working on the project had obtained data about search queries in China from the search engine on 265.com — China’s most used homepage. At least one of the engineers had obtained an access key to 265.com’s application programming interface and used it to get the data from the site. The members of Google’s privacy team were not aware of the use of 265.com which was a breach of company protocol. Due to this conflict, the continuation of project Dragonfly had been dropped, although Google did not disclose that they wouldn’t work with Chinese censorship again in the future.
Although there are no plans for Google to continue with a search engine that would comply with Chinese censorship laws, after their repeated attempts to enter the Chinese market, including their willingness to develop censorship and tracking tools for China, they’ve heard loud and clear what their employees think of the idea.
The employee’s open letter was very direct in its criticism of both Google and China: “We object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable,” the letter read.
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