Google withdrew from China in 2010 to protest the country’s censorship. Now the internet giant is working on a search engine that complies with Chinese censorship rules.
HONG KONG — Google withdrew from China eight years ago to protest the country’s censorship and online hacking. Now the internet giant is working on a censored search engine for China that will filter websites and search terms that are blacklisted by the Chinese government, according to two people with knowledge of the plans.
Google has teams of engineers working on a search app that restricts content banned by Beijing, said the people, who asked for anonymity because they were not permitted to speak publicly about the project. The company has demonstrated the service to Chinese government officials, they added.
Yet the existence of the project does not mean Google’s return to China is imminent, the people cautioned. Google often builds and tests different services that never become publicly available.
Google’s reversal in China, which was earlier reported by The Intercept, is the latest example of how American tech companies are trying to tailor their products to enter the massive Chinese market, even if it means tamping down on free speech. LinkedIn censors content in China, for example. And Facebook developed software to suppress certain posts from appearing on the social network, with the aim of potentially deploying it in China, though there was no indication it was ultimately offered to Chinese authorities.
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Many of these overtures ultimately appear to fall short of winning over Beijing. Last month, Facebook briefly gained approval to open a subsidiary in China’s Zhejiang province, but that approval was abruptly withdrawn after a matter of hours.
Google’s work on a censored search engine for China has already caused an outcry among human rights activists. Many are concerned the company would block a long list of foreign websites including Facebook, Twitter and The New York Times, as well as Chinese search queries including the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and information about the Chinese leadership.
Amnesty International said it would be a “dark day for internet freedom” and would constitute “a gross attack on freedom of information and internet freedom” if the tech giant accepted China’s censorship terms.
The work may also be unpopular among Google’s own employees. The company’s workforce has pushed back in recent months on issues such as gender in the workplace and how artificial intelligence should be applied to weaponry.
“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,” said Taj Meadows, a Google spokesman.
Although Google pulled its search engine out of China in 2010, the company has lately displayed more interest in regaining access to the world’s largest internet population. In June, Google announced a $550 million investment in the Chinese online retailer JD.com. Last year, Google unveiled plans to open a research center in China focused on artificial intelligence. And the company has released translation and file management apps for the Chinese market. Google now has more than 700 employees in China.
In the years since Google’s exit, local competitors have risen up, including China’s dominant search engine, Baidu. Beyond search, the vast majority of Google’s services, including its app store, email service and YouTube, remain inaccessible behind the Great Firewall, as the country’s system of internet controls is known.
Talks between Google and the Chinese government over the censored search engine began before the start of the recent trade war between the United States and China, one of the people said. The talks were not going well, this person added.
But the Chinese government could nonetheless use Google as a chip in its negotiations with the American government, which has been critical of the way China limits market access for U.S. technology companies. By letting Google’s search engine back into China, the Chinese government could give President Donald Trump a political victory, earning some goodwill.
For Google, China is an increasingly difficult market to navigate. The Chinese government has tightened internet censorship significantly since President Xi Jinping came into power five years ago. Companies need a great deal of resources to meet the censorship demands imposed by the government, and failing to do so can be serious. In the first half of 2018, China’s national internet regulator shut down or revoked the license of more than 3,000 websites.
And while Google is a household brand in much of the world, its name may draw blank stares from China’s younger generation who are growing up in the post-Google Chinese internet. Winning these people will be an uphill battle for Google, especially if it cannot differentiate itself much from Baidu.
On Chinese social media on Wednesday, some people cheered the news of Google’s possible China re-entry, saying that they welcomed competition with Baidu, which has faced scandals over its search results related to medical treatment.
Others questioned whether a heavily censored Google might be useful.
“We welcome a normal Google but not a neutered Google,” said Liu Xingliang, head of research at Beijing-based analytics firm Data Center of the China Internet. “We don’t need a second Baidu.”