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Google’s privacy chief confirms existence of ‘censored Chinese search engine’ Project Dragonfly

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 September, 2018, 12:45pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 September, 2018, 1:38pm

Google has confirmed for the first time the existence of Project Dragonfly, reportedly a censored search engine for China, but a company executive told the US Senate he did not know details of the project.

“There is a Project Dragonfly,” Google’s chief privacy officer Keith Enright told a Senate hearing on Wednesday, but maintained that he was “not clear on the contours of what is in scope or out of the scope for that project”.

Project Dragonfly was earlier reported to be the code name for Google’s secret mission to develop a censored search app specifically for China, which would blacklist websites on human rights, democracy, religion and other issues deemed sensitive by the Chinese government, according to a report published last month by The Intercept.

Rights groups urge no censored Google search app for China

“My understanding is that we’re not close to launching a search product in China, and whether we eventually could, or would, remains unclear,” Enright said repeatedly in response to lawmakers’ questions regarding the company’s plan for a China-focused search engine and its implications for censorship and human rights.

The privacy chief added that if plans to launch a search product for China were in the final stages, he and his team would already be actively engaged in conducting privacy reviews to ensure the product adhered to Google’s privacy values.

“Any product we launch anywhere in the world will reflect our values and commitment we made to our users,” Enright said.

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Google executives made similar remarks in August, saying the company was “not close to launching” a search product in China, according to reports citing an internal meeting with employees. The executives reportedly said the company was still considering how to do business in the country. Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said that plans to re-enter China with a search engine were “exploratory” and in the “early stages”, according to Bloomberg.

With a population of 1.4 billion people, China is home to 802 million internet users, the biggest online community in the world. Yet, the mainland Chinese market has been off-limits to Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which are blocked from being accessed in China.

Google exited the Chinese mainland in 2010 after clashing with Beijing over censorship of search results and a cyberattack on users of its Gmail email service. China subsequently blocked Google’s services on the mainland. The US internet giant had entered China in 2000 by launching a Chinese-language version of its search engine.

Where can Facebook and Google go next, if not the Chinese market?

The censored search engine project is not the first time Google has attempted to return to the Chinese market. In July the company introduced an artificial intelligence (AI) powered mini-game on WeChat, the versatile messaging, social network, gaming, e-commerce and payments platform of Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings.

“We have a very, very engaged community in China,” Jay Yagnik, Google’s head of machine perception research, said on the sidelines of an AI-themed conference in Shanghai earlier this month, noting the two million downloads of Google’s open-source machine learning software tool TensorFlow by developers in the country.

Last year, Google established its AI China Centre in Beijing and invested in several Chinese companies, including e-sports site Chushou and AI company Mobvoi, as well as a US$550 million investment in e-commerce platform JD.com.