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Google is still working on Chinese search engine, say employees

Published: March 5, 2019
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Dragonfly On The Wall

Google’s Chinese search engine project that would censor parts of the web — codenamed Dragonfly — might not be dead just yet.

In December, Google CEO Sundar Pichai told the House Judiciary Committee that the company had “no plans to launch in China,” seemingly putting an end to the controversial project.

But on Monday, The Intercept published a report detailing a group of Google employees’ belief that work on Dragonfly is still ongoing — meaning Google might be planning to help the Chinese government police the web after all.

The Code Knows

In August, The Intercept published a report claiming Google was working on a censorship-friendly search engine for China. The following month, Google confirmed the project’s existence, and a wave of backlash followed, with the company’s own employees protesting its involvement in the project.


Soon after Pichai’s congressional testimony, it appeared the project was officially dead, but a group of Google employees wanted to be certain, so they launched their own investigation, they told The Intercept.

These employees began monitoring Google’s code repositories related to Dragonfly and noted approximately 500 changes to the code in December. Between January and February, more than 400 additional changes appeared.

The employees told The Intercept they see these changes, as well as that fact that Google is still maintaining a budget for Dragonfly, as evidence that the project is ongoing.

Temporary Delay

Despite what the employees found, Google maintains that Dragonfly is still dead.


“This speculation is wholly inaccurate,” a Google representative told The Verge. “Quite simply: there’s no work happening on Dragonfly. As we’ve said for many months, we have no plans to launch Search in China and there is no work being undertaken on such a project. Team members have moved to new projects.”

Still, when Pichai testified in December, he included the words “right now” when talking about Google’s lack of plans for a Chinese search engine — leading some to believe the project might not be dead, just dormant.

“Right now it feels unlaunchable, but I don’t think they are canceling outright,” former Google software engineer Colin McMillen told The Intercept. “I think they are putting it on the back burner and are going to try it again in a year or two with a different code name or approach.”



More on Dragonfly: Google CEO: “No Plans” To Launch Censored Chinese Search Engine

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Google employees have made headlines in recent months for coordinating internal campaigns against "evil" corporate projects such as their work on China's "Dragonfly" data-collection search engine, and a secret military drone AI project that at least a dozen employees quit over. 

More than 1,400 Google staff, many journalists, and human rights organizations are calling on Google to halt its controversial project called Dragonfly.  

The secrecy surrounding the work was unheard of at Google. It was not unusual for planned new products to be closely guarded ahead of launch. But this time was different. The objective, code-named Dragonfly, was to build a search engine for China that would censor broad categories of information about human rights, democracy, and peaceful protest.

The project, code-named Dragonfly, would blacklist phrases like "human rights," "student protest," and "Nobel Prize," and has resulted in at least seven Google employees quitting for ethical reasons. Other employees have circulated a letter recognizing a "code yellow" emergency, suggesting that the Dragonfly initiative violates Google's ethical code, which states that the company will not build or deploy technologies "whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights," according to The Intercept. 

Jack Poulson is one of several googlers to quit the company over Project Dragonfly, the company's secret plan to launch a Chinese search tool that will incorporate state surveillance and censorship on behalf of China's authoritarian government... Google confirmed that this product has been developed, but insisted that the product is "not close to launch."

GOOGLE BOSSES HAVE forced employees to delete a confidential memo circulating inside the company that revealed explosive details about a plan to launch a censored search engine in China, The Intercept has learned. The memo, authored by a Google engineer who was asked to work on the project, disclosed that the search system, codenamed Dragonfly, would require users to log in to perform searches, track their location — and share the resulting history with a Chinese partner who would have “unilateral access” to the data.

Google's Project Dragonfly was a secret prototype search engine intended to pave the way for the company's return to China; it featured censored search results that complied with Chinese state rules banning searches for topics like "human rights," "student protest" and "Nobel prize." Leaked details of Dragonfly, reported in The Intercept, paint a picture of a search tool that doesn't merely limit access to information, but also assists Chinese state agents in retaliating against people who sought access to banned information.

Two days ago, a source leaked the existence of "Project Dragonfly", a super-secret Google plan to create a censored search-tool for use in China. The Intercept's blockbuster scoop on the project caught Google's management flatfooted, with many of the key people involved off on summer holidays.

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