Google has been condemned for supporting state censorship following reports that the company is working on a mobile search app that would block certain search terms and allow it to reenter the Chinese market، The Guardian reported.
The California-based internet company has engineers designing search software that would leave out content blacklisted by the Chinese government، according to a New York Times report citing two unnamed people familiar with the effort. Such blacklisting would allow the company to reverse its move out of the country eight years ago، taken due to censorship and hacking.
News website The Intercept first reported the story، saying the Chinese search app was being tailored for the Google-backed Android operating system for mobile devices.
The service was said to have been shown to Chinese officials. Google did not respond to a request for comment. The state-owned China Securities Daily، citing information from “relevant departments”، denied the report.
As well as the search app، Google is also reportedly building a second app، focused on news aggregation، for the Chinese market، which would also comply with the country’s censorship laws، according to tech news site the Information. The news app would take its lead from popular algorithmically-curated apps such as Bytedance’s Toutiao – released for the Western market as “TopBuzz” – that eschew human editors in favour of personalised، highly viral content.
There was no guarantee the project، code-named “Dragonfly” would result in Google search returning to China. Google already offers a number of apps to Chinese users، including Google Translate and Files Go، and the company has offices in Beijing، Shenzhen and Shanghai. But the largest of its services – search، email، and the Play app store – are all unavailable in the country.
Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin has previously cited his birth in the Soviet Union in the 1970s as explaining his opposition to enabling Chinese censorship. “It touches me more than other people having been born in a country that was totalitarian and having seen that for the first few years of my life،” he told the Guardian in 2010، as Google pulled its censorship from Chinese search after four years of co-operating with the authorities.
The Chinese human rights community said Google acquiescing to China’s censorship would be a “dark day for internet freedom”.
“It is impossible to see how such a move is compatible with Google’s ‘Do the right thing’ motto، and we are calling on the company to change course،” said Patrick Poon، China Researcher at Amnesty International.
“For the world’s biggest search engine to adopt such extreme measures would be a gross attack on freedom of information and internet freedom. In putting profits before human rights، Google would be setting a chilling precedent and handing the Chinese government a victory.”
GreatFire، a China-based organisation that monitors internet censorship and provides ways around the “Great Firewall” for Chinese residents، said the move “could be the final nail in the Chinese internet freedom coffin.”
“The ensuing crackdown on freedom of speech will be felt around the globe،” the organisation added.
Speaking to the Guardian in 2016، GreatFire’s co-founder “Charlie Smith” – a pseudonym – had praised Google’s initial decision to pull out of China in 2010، over what it said were cyberattacks aimed at its source code and the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
“I think people are going to be very wary and attentive to how Google goes back into China. And hopefully they’re going to show us that there is a way to go back in without having to censor،” Smith said at the time.
“I would be disappointed، and I know that a lot of other people would be disappointed، if Google went back in and said ‘we’re going to censor our search results again’، because they’ve made that mistake already، and they should understand that the situation hasn’t changed.”