By Oiwan Lam
After deflecting questions from reporters for months, CEO Sundar Pichai acknowledged in October 2018 Google’s plan to build “Dragonfly,” a censored search engine app that would serve Chinese users.
But on December 5, in a hearing before the US House Judiciary Committee, Pichai described the development of Dragonfly as an “internal effort” and said that the company currently had no plans to launch a search service in China.
When asked if he was committed to launching “a tool for surveillance and censorship in China”, Pichai declined to answer. He instead told legislators that he is committed to “providing users with information, and so we always — we think it’s ideal to explore possibilities. […] We’ll be very thoughtful, and we will engage widely as we make progress.”
His answer echoed a pro-Dragonfly letter, circulated anonymously among Google staff before the House hearing, and subsequently published on Tech Crunch:
Dragonfly is well aligned with Google’s mission. China has the largest number of Internet users of all countries in the world, and yet, most of Google’s services are unavailable in China. This situation heavily contradicts our mission, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. While there are some prior success [sic], Google should keep the effort in finding out how to bring more of our products and services, including Search, to the Chinese users…In any case, only with continuing efforts on Dragonfly can we learn how different approaches may work out in China, and find out if there is a way that is good for both the Chinese users and Google. Even if we fail, the findings can still be useful for bringing other services to China.
Around mid-October, when Pichai confirmed the development of the censored search engine, several technology and business news outlets — including Startup Media and Computer Post — reported the news on Sina Weibo, highlighting the positive aspects of Google’s Chinese plan:
Despite these positive overtones, opinions in China remain divided. About half of the ensuing comments welcomed Pichai’s take, likely due in part to public resentment of Baidu, the country’s most popular search engine, which is incorporated in China:
But there were many sceptical voices on Weibo too:
Just before Australia-based Chinese political cartoonist Badiucao cancelled his exhibition in Hong Kong and discontinued posting on Twitter, due to threats from Beijing, he opened a Twitter poll about Google’s return to China and invited other Twitter users to comment:
— 巴丢草 Badiucao (@badiucao) October 17, 2018
Is it good or bad for Google to cooperate with censors and return to China? Please write down your reason by replying to this thread.
As many as 857 people voted, with 18 per cent expressing support for the return and 65 per cent opposing it. The majority of Dragonfly project supporters believe the censored search engine could serve the needs of Chinese Internet users.
Twitter user @zhizhi_ma’s reply was typical of this argument:
But this rationale may be overstating the social impact of Google search.
As Twitter user @chutsetien pointed out, apart from Baidu, there are other reliable search engines in China, such as Microsoft’s Bing.com:
And there is reason to believe that if Google’s search engine were to have a positive impact on China, Chinese authorities would step in and nip it the bud. As Twitter user @TechyanWP argued:
Baidu’s monopoly status in China is guaranteed by the Chinese government. Like the majority of the Chinese tech giants, Baidu follows censorship orders from the authorities, grants cybersecurity police access to user data, and has set up Chinese Communist Party branches within the corporation.
If Google’s censored search engine is not the only alternative, and authorities refuse to allow it to have a significant impact on Chinese society, the Dragonfly project may become more of a symbolic act — a global IT giant paying tribute to China’s data dictatorship, in pursuit of greater profits. The concession of universal values will never come to an end, just as Twitter user ANTatAries predicted:
This article originally appeared on Global Voices.