(Bloomberg)—Alphabet Inc.’s Google is preparing to launch a censored version of its search engine for China that will block results Beijing considers sensitive, The Intercept reported.
Google’s been working on a project code-named Dragonfly since the spring of 2017 and demonstrated a sanitized version of its search app to Chinese officials, the news outlet reported, citing company documents and unidentified people familiar with the matter. A final version of the app could be launched within six to nine months, it said.
“We provide a number of mobile apps in China, such as Google Translate and Files Go, help Chinese developers, and have made significant investments in Chinese companies like JD.com. But we don’t comment on speculation about future plans,” Google said in an emailed statement.
China has been the biggest hole in Google’s global footprint since it largely withdrew from the country in 2010 by refusing to self-censor search content. Its stance later saw most of its services blocked, including Gmail and the Google Play app store. Offering a censored search app would mark a significant about-face for a company that began life with the motto “Don’t Be Evil” and champions free communication on the internet.
In the company’s absence, Baidu Inc. has strengthened its grip on search in China while Microsoft Corp.’s Bing operates in the country by censoring subjects and words. Facebook and Twitter are blocked outright.
“Google is waking up to smell the coffee,” said Andy Mok, founder and president of Beijing-based consultancy Red Pagoda Resources LLC. “Not being in China is a huge strategic miscalculation. The liberals of this world obviously will recoil at the idea.”
In recent years, Google has made overtures to Beijing and the country’s tech industry, providing its TensorFlow AI products as well as investing in Chinese corporations and startups such as JD.com Inc., No. 1 in the Internet Retailer 2018 Asia 500.
The company decided to quicken the development of a censored app after CEO Sundar Pichai met with top government official Wang Huning in December 2017, the Intercept reported. Google insiders don’t know if China will approve the app amid an escalating trade dispute with the U.S., but search head Ben Gomes told staff last month to be ready to launch on short notice.
Beijing bans outright criticism of the government and mention of sensitive terms such as the Tiananmen massacre. The Intercept reported that such terms would be censored in the planned app.
According to the Intercept, the app will automatically pick up on and block websites on Beijing’s blacklist, known as the Great Firewall. Such banned sites will be removed from the first page of results, replaced by a legal disclaimer disclosing the action. In some cases, no results will be displayed at all if a user types in a particularly sensitive query, the Intercept cited confidential documents as saying.
Google “faces an uphill battle in getting users who are now very accustomed to Baidu to switch,” said Mark Natkin, managing director of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting. “I am a bit surprised but it’s indicative of how much sway the China market now has.”