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Google said to plan AI-powered news-aggregation app along with search engine for China market

Reports of Google’s plans underline how important the China market is for US hi-tech companies, despite strict censorship hurdles

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 August, 2018, 2:13pm
UPDATED : Friday, 03 August, 2018, 2:55pm

Google is developing a news-aggregation app for use in China that works like Beijing Bytedance’s popular Jinri Toutiao app, which uses artificial intelligence to tailor individualised feeds based on personal preference, according to The Information, which cited three people familiar with the project.

The news app will meet the country’s censorship laws and is in addition to a mobile search app that was reported earlier. Together, the projects are part of an initiative code-named Dragonfly, Google’s plan to re-enter the world’s biggest internet market in the near future, according to the people.

Work on the news app started last year and Google has been meeting with Chinese regulators to discuss the project, according to The Information. But progress has stalled since trade tensions between US and China escalated this year, with Google executives struggling to engage with China’s top internet regulator on the project, the report said.

The news app was to have been released before the search app, though geopolitical tensions could delay the release to next year, according to the report.

The apps are being developed at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, and in China, the report said.

Representatives for Google and Cyberspace Administration of China, the internet regulator, did not immediately reply to requests for comment sent by email and fax, respectively.

Alphabet’s Google plans to launch a version of its search engine in China that will block some websites and search terms, two sources told Reuters on Thursday, in a move that could mark its return to a market it abandoned eight years ago on censorship concerns and confirming an earlier report. 

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The Intercept reported Google’s China plans on Wednesday, citing internal Google documents and people familiar with the plans The plan comes even as China has stepped up scrutiny into business dealings involving US tech firms including Facebook, Apple and Qualcomm amid intensifying trade tensions between Beijing and Washington.

Google, which quit China’s search engine market in 2010, has been actively seeking ways to re-enter China where many of its products are blocked by regulators.

The Dragonfly project has been under way since the spring of 2017, the news website said. Progress on the project picked up after a December meeting between Google chief executive Sundar Pichai and a top Chinese government official, it said.

Search terms about human rights, democracy, religion and peaceful protests will be among the words blacklisted in the search engine app, which The Intercept said had already been showed to the Chinese government.

The finalised version could be launched in the next six to nine months, pending approval from Chinese officials, it said.

Chinese state-owned Securities Times, however, said reports of the return of Google’s search engine to China were not true, citing information from “relevant departments”.

But a Google employee familiar with the censored version of the search engine confirmed to Reuters that the project was alive and genuine. On an internal message board, the employee wrote: “In my opinion, it is just as bad as the leak article mentions.”

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The worker, who declined to be named, said that he had seen slides on the effort and that many executives at the vice-president level were aware of it. He said he had transferred out of his unit to avoid being involved.

Separately, a Chinese official with knowledge of the plans said that Google has been in contact with authorities at the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) about a modified search programme. The official, who declined to be named, said the project does not currently have approval from authorities and that it is “very unlikely” such a project would be made available this year.

Google declined to comment on the accounts and the CAC did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Reuters on Thursday.

News of Google’s plans to re-enter China sent shares of Beijing-based Baidu down the most since May, when its chief operating officer Lu Qi stepped down. Google parent Alphabet’s shares rose for the first time in four days on Wednesday.

Google’s change of approach in dealing with China’s rigid censorship laws further highlights how important the mainland Chinese market is perceived by major hi-tech companies in the US.

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With a population of 1.4 billion people, China is home to 772 million internet users, the biggest online community in the world, according to the China Internet Report co-authored by the South China Morning Post, its tech news site Abacus and San Francisco-based venture capital firm 500 Startups.

China, which is also the world’s biggest smartphone market, has also seen increased affluence among its consumers, which are quick to embrace innovative new technologies and services.

That has also allowed internet companies led by Baidu, Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings to expand beyond their initial businesses, building vast online platforms that offer a range of products and services to their users. The trio now commands a combined market valuation exceeding US$1 trillion.

Alibaba is the parent company of the Post.

With additional reporting by Zen Soo and Sarah Dai