Google has reportedly shut down its Chinese censored search engine project that it had been working on, secretly. It was known as project Dragonfly, and its employees were not happy about creating this search engine, and they felt that it raised a lot of ethical concerns. Google has shut down a data analysis system that it was using to develop this search engine, this comes after part of Google's privacy team raised some internal complaints about the system and how it had been kept secret from them. This is all according to a report out of The Intercept, who first reported the fact that some employees were working on Dragonfly, back in August.
The search engine had to be different from what Google offers in other countries like the US and across Europe, due to the People's Republic of China's censorship laws – which is why Google is not in China right now. Google had around "several hundred" employees working on Dragonfly at one point, where it was blocking out broad categories that would be censored under Chinese law. Google was using a site that it owned, 265.com, which has been active the entire time that Google has not been in China, as a search engine which will then redirect the results to Baidu (the largest and most popular search engine in China). Allowing Engineers to scrape search queries from that site for its Chinese search engine. This data would help engineers learn what users were searching for in the country, and also determine what would need to be censored, under China's censorship laws. This was not known to the company's privacy team, and Google was also not following company protocol with Dragonfly. Under company protocol, reviewing users search queries goes under a pretty tight review process, so that not just anyone can see what you have been searching. That was not the case with 265.com queries. The privacy team at Google only found out about this issue when it was reported in the press.
Unsurprisingly, this was not the first time that the privacy team had been kept in the dark in relation to work being done on Dragonfly. Back in November, reports surfaced that privacy and security employees that were working on Dragonfly were shut out of meetings. Some that worked on the project last year stated that it was an extremely secretive project, and that is not how things are typically done at Google. Needless to say, this project drew a whole lot of scrutiny due to the way that Google was going about this project. Including how secretive and sneaky it was being about this project. Typically, projects are pretty secretive, as to prevent leaks from happening, but Dragonfly was on another level.
Background: Dragonfly has been something that the public has known about for quite some time, and many employees have been protesting this project – along with some other things happening at Google lately. But now that the privacy team is in on the project, it led to a falling out, and essentially killing the project. Google saw backlash towards Dragonfly, both within the company and outside of the company. With many not liking the idea of launching a censored search engine in China, this included some human rights organizations asking Google to stop Dragonfly. When Google's CEO, Sundar Pichai testified in front of Congress last week, he was asked about Dragonfly, and basically said that there were no plans to launch a search engine in China "right now". Now he did leave the door open to launch a search engine in China, but it looks like that won't be happening after all.
This is a significant blow to Pichai. China is the only country in the world where Google does not exist, at all. This is due to China's censorship policies, which forced Google to leave China in 2010, completely. There has been rumors that Google was looking to bring certain products back to the country, including a censored Play Store – though that would be a tall order, given the hundreds of Android app stores already in China. And then now with Dragonfly, the censored search engine. But it appears that won't be happening. Google really wants to get into China because, well it is the largest country on earth right now with over 1.4 billion people. That's 1.4 billion people that are not using Google products, and the area where Google can really expand, not only search but all of its products. However, it is a hard market to crack. Not only because of the censorship laws, but also the many competitors to Google that are already in China, and are obviously much larger than Google in the country.
Impact: Many employees are going to be rejoicing this news today, and it's not hard to see why. Google's motto has always been "don't be evil" and creating a censored search engine would be Google siding with the censorship laws in China, and "being evil", at least according to some. Of course, executives including its CEO, Sundar Pichai, were not really looking at that aspect of things, but looking to bring its product to more users and get more people using Search. After all, Search and Ads are still over 90-percent of Google's revenue, and if it can crack the Chinese market, that number could grow pretty astonishingly. It's unfortunate that Google is not really allowed in China, but given its censorship laws, it's not all that surprising. Google will continue to make plays to get back into the country though, as Facebook is also trying to do as of late, but the question is whether it will work for Google.
A censored search engine probably would have been the right choice for Google, but the big mistake here was keeping its privacy team out of the loop, thus creating a big backlash over the product. When a team at your company finds out about something you've been working on through a report in the media, it's not a good sign, and that was ultimately the downfall here.