Why Google’s plan to launch a censored search engine in China is problematic

The Chinese government has a long history of restricting free speech.

Google is reportedly planning to launch a censored version of its search engine in China, raising questions about its cooperation with a country that suppresses free speech.

According to a report by the Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher on Wednesday, the search engine will “blacklist sensitive queries” and filter out websites blocked by the Chinese government. Search terms about sensitive subjects such as human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest will be among those blocked.

China censors online information to quash political dissent — and just about anything the government deems dangerous. Google is currently blocked in the country, along with other media giants like Facebook, the New York Times, and YouTube.

Internal documents leaked to the Intercept by a whistleblower reportedly show that Google started working on the project in 2017 under the code name “Dragonfly” and that the company is planning for it to be released as a mobile app on Android. Although there is no set release date, it could be launched in the next six to nine months if it’s approved by Chinese officials, according to the report.

But the news has stoked fears about the ethical repercussions of Google’s relaunch in the country.

“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.”

This isn’t the first time Google has launched a censored version of its search engine in China

The company launched Google.cn in 2006 “in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results,” according to a statement the company published later.

But in 2010, following “a sophisticated cyber attack originating from China” against Google and 20 other US companies, Google shut down the Chinese search engine and moved its now-uncensored Chinese-language search platform to Hong Kong.

But now the company seems to be changing its mind once again. And shortly after the report was published Wednesday morning, China’s primary search engine Baidu had already taken a hit on the stock market.

It’s unknown why China is allowing Google to relaunch its search engine, but the tech company has recently been on warmer terms with the country. As The Verge reports, Google released a mobile management app in China in January, and in 2017, the company built a new AI research lab in Beijing.

In a statement to The Verge, a Google spokesperson said, “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. But we don’t comment on speculation about future plans.”

China’s censorship methods are widespread — and dangerous

The China relaunch raises serious questions about Google’s corporate ethics given the Chinese government’s long history of manipulating social media and internet searches to suppress free speech.

Last month, the state blocked posts mentioning British comedian John Oliver and his show from Chinese social media platform Weibo because of jokes he made that were critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

And last July, Chinese government censors even started blocking mentions of Winnie the Pooh — yes, that Winnie the Pooh, the one who lives in the Hundred-Acre Wood and has an incurable craving for “hunny” — on social media sites because of an unflattering meme comparing Xi to the cartoon bear.

But government censorship in China has more serious consequences as well.

In January, the #MeToo movement that started in the US hit Chinese college campuses, with several women coming forward with sexual misconduct allegations against university officials.

Almost immediately, Chinese government censors stepped in to quash the movement.

“In the second half of January,” the South China Morning Post reports, “censors deleted hundreds of social media posts and petitions in support of the #MeToo campaign, which included the primary hashtag of China’s campaign #MeTooInChina or related phrases such as ‘anti-sexual harassment,’ and closed related topic forums.”

Last week, Chinese women took to social media to publish open letters detailing what they say are nonconsensual acts with prominent activists and television personalities. And once again, the state immediately stepped in, taking down some of the posts.

And amid US-China trade war tensions, the state reportedly told Chinese media outlets earlier this month not to “over-report” the trade war, which has left lasting damage on the Chinese stock market.

The Chinese government has long controlled the media and tried to shut down free speech with its censorship. And now it seems like Google wants to help them.