Eight years after internet giant Google left China citing concerns about censorship, it’s reportedly looking at going back. Staff are up in arms, and humans rights groups are also concerned about what it means for activists and privacy in the country.

What is Google doing in China?

An article in The Intercept last month revealed a secret project by Google (code-named “Dragonfly”) to develop a search engine that would comply with China’s strict censorship laws (which the ABC has this week fallen foul of). Calls from academics in China encouraged Google to reenter the restrictive regime — they wanted access to Google Scholar, which publishes academic articles not otherwise easily available in their country. China is a huge market for online players, and is hard for Google to ignore.

According to The Intercept, Google has been working on a censored search engine that will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest — topics that are censored on websites allowed in the country. The new app would be allowed behind China’s infamous firewall, which blocks the world’s biggest search engine within China (as well as many other websites).

How have employees responded?

The move has upset the famously (but not entirely) libertarian Silicon Valley employees of the internet giant, who are said to be revolting. The New York Times reported last month that 1400 employees had signed a letter protesting an expansion into China, and that others had refused to work on the project, while CNN reported that at a company meeting CEO Sundar Pichai responded by saying that the company “wasn’t even close” to getting started in China.

Part of The Intercept’s report included a former employees’ essay about the project and the ethical issues they saw with the project, in particular the restrictions on free speech.

And the rest of the world?

It’s not just internally that the move has raised concerns, either. Human Rights Watch has urged Google not to go ahead with any moves into China, which it calls a “a one-party authoritarian state that systemically curbs fundamental rights”. And in a joint open letter, the world’s leading human rights organisations last week wrote to Pichai expressing their “concern” at the project. The letter, signed by organisations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said the move was an “alarming capitulation”:

The project … would represent an alarming capitulation by Google on human rights. The Chinese government extensively violates the rights to freedom of expression and privacy; by accommodating the Chinese authorities’ repression of dissent, Google would be actively participating in those violations for millions of internet users in China … Since Google publicly exited the search market in China in 2010, citing restrictions to freedom of expression online, the Chinese government has strengthened its controls over the internet and intensified.

Google hasn’t officially responded to any of the commentary.

Hasn’t Google been in China before?

Between 2006 and 2010 Google ran a censored version of its search engine in China. But, in 2010, it pulled out, after it found that Gmail accounts — Google’s email service — belonging to Chinese human rights activists were being “routinely accessed by third parties”. At the time, Google said:

These attacks and the surveillance they uncovered — combined with attempts over the last year to further limit free speech on the web in China including the persistent blocking of websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Docs and Blogger — had led us to conclude that we could no longer continue censoring our results on Google.cn.

What are other Western tech companies doing in China?

China is an attractive market, but non-Chinese companies are greatly hampered by the Great Firewall. In June, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Recode he was interested in pursuing interests in China, but the nation’s officials pulled his licence for a subsidiary company just hours after it was granted in that same month. 

Yahoo is still operating in China. It was the main subject of a high-profile case in the mid-2000s, where it cooperated with the Chinese government in persecuting dissidents, including journalists.

Twitter is blocked in China, replaced by Chinese micro-blogging platform Weibo. YouTube and SnapChat are also blocked. And while Amazon is not blocked, it’s vastly overshadowed by online retail store Alibaba.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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