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Google reported to launch censored search engine in China, marking shift in strategy

The US internet giant’s modified search app will blacklist sites on human rights, democracy, religion and other issues deemed sensitive by the Chinese government

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2018, 7:27pm
UPDATED : Friday, 03 August, 2018, 11:38am

Google plans to launch a censored version of its search engine in China, marking a major shift in strategy for the US internet giant nearly a decade after it exited the world’s second largest economy over Beijing’s strict censorship rules, according to a report by The Intercept.

The final version of Google’s modified search app, which will blacklist sites on human rights, democracy, religion and other issues deemed sensitive by the Chinese government, has already been shown to authorities and is now pending approval, according to the online news publication, which cited people familiar with the matter and internal Google documents.

Code-named “Dragonfly”, Google’s Chinese search engine project has been underway for more than a year and could be introduced in the market within the next six to eight months, the report said.

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It said different versions of Android apps have been created for the search engine in China, which have been named “Maotai” and “Longfei”.

The Chinese Google search app will automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the country’s Great Firewall, preventing them from showing up in the results. Users will be notified that results have been removed to comply with “statutory requirements”.

Google’s re-entry into China will see it compete with the dominant player in the Chinese market, Baidu. Nasdaq-listed Baidu currently has the lion’s share of the domestic search market, with almost 70 per cent share, according to data by StatCounter Global Stats.

A Google spokeswoman said on Wednesday that the company “does not comment on speculation about future plans”.

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“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,” she said.

A staff member at the spokesman’s office of the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s internet regulator, said he was not aware of that Google initiative.

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.

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 the 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.

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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.

The mainland Chinese market, however, has been off-limits to the operations of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which are behind the Great Firewall. Google’s search engine and other services are in the same predicament.

“Being unable to operate the world’s most populous country is problematic for Google,” said Neil Wang, the Greater China president of consultancy firm Frost and Sullivan, in a Post report in January.

Google exited the Chinese mainland in 2010 after clashing with Beijing over the censorship of search results and a cyberattack on users of its Gmail email service. China subsequently blocked Google’s services on the mainland.

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The US internet giant entered China in 2000 by launching a Chinese-language version of its search engine.

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

Last year, Google established its AI China Centre in Beijing, and invested in several Chinese companies, including e-sports site Chushou and artificial intelligence company Mobvoi, as well as e-commerce firm JD.com.

Google is not the only US company attempting to return to the Chinese market. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has spent several years picking up Mandarin, while the company last month set up a subsidiary in Hangzhou, with a registered capital of US$30 million, to establish an innovation hub there, according to the social networking giant.

Additional reporting by Sarah Dai