GOOGLE is reportedly planning to launch a censored version of their world-famous search engine for the China market, a move that has critics worried about the internet giant’s approach to free speech.
A report from The Intercept detailed how Alphabet Inc’s company has been developing the project – code-named Dragonfly – since mid-2017. Different versions of the Google Chrome app have been developed, named Maotai and Longfei, that will blacklist websites and censor search terms about democracy, protest, religion and human rights.
Google is currently blocked in the country, along with other internet giants like Facebook and Twitter, after its first attempt at a censored version was dogged by allegations of government hacking back in 2010. Since then it has operated its Chinese-language unfiltered version from Hong Kong.
Internal Google documents leaked to The Intercept show that, although there is no set release date, the company is expecting the new versions to be launched in the next six to nine months depending on approval from Chinese authorities.
The move to relaunch in line with Beijing’s stringent restrictions has worried rights groups who view China’s approach as a dangerous precedent.
“This has very serious implications not just for China, but for all of us, for freedom of information and internet freedom,” Patrick Poon, an Amnesty International researcher based in Hong Kong, told The Intercept.
“It will set a terrible precedent for many other companies who are still trying to do business in China while maintaining the principles of not succumbing to China’s censorship.”
Critics are accusing Google of pandering to China’s disregard for human rights, which has seen the erasure of critics of the government in the past.
When Nobel Peace Prize winner and Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo died last year, China’s vast army of censors kicked into overdrive as they scrubbed away the outpouring of grief on social media.
According to a report from Citizen Lab, the number of keyword combinations that were blocked on messaging app WeChat, which has more than 768 million daily active users, greatly increased.
It was also the first time that images were automatically filtered in private one-on-one chats on WeChat. Blocked images included photographs of Liu and of people commemorating him.
Any social media memes deemed offensive to the government, especially President Xi Jinping, are quickly removed.
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) March 1, 2018
In July, censors started blocking any mention of Winnie the Pooh after an unflattering meme comparing Xi to the fictional bear went viral. People were quick to take up the comparison as a way to poke fun at the leader as he was setting himself up for lifelong leadership.
This behaviour is nothing new, and has been a staple of the communist party for generations. None of which has stopped tech giants from turning their eyes East.
Google has long advocated a free and open internet, but China’s hundreds of millions of internet users and affluent online shoppers have proven too much of a draw for many US tech companies to ignore.
Facebook has been trying for years to crack the Chinese market with minimal success. Only last month did it get its first near win when a government database showed the social media site had gained approval to open an innovation hub in Hangzhou. Just hours later, however, the posting was removed and all references to it were censored in the media.
Apple made concessions when it was forced to remove VPN software from its app store as it allows users to bypass the Great Firewall, as Chinese censors are colloquially known. They also now store Chinese users’ data in government-linked servers.
AirBnB has done the same to avoid being blocked.
While critics have been very vocal, accusing Google of bending to China’s will, the tech giant may just be on its way to achieving what many others have tried to do.
From a business perspective, getting back into China is the right thing for Google. And business is Google’s game. Let’s remember they are a multibillion-dollar empire, their bottom line will always win out. I’m not sure why we expect them to be ethical.