Google's Chinese Search Engine Will Censor Results, Provide Gov't-Approved Pollution Data
from the breaking-the-internet-for-a-few-billion-users dept
More bad news is surfacing from Google’s Chinese government-ordained search engine. The project, known as “Dragonfly,” has proven unpopular with some Google employees and many, many Google critics. The Intercept obtained leaked documents from a unhappy Google employee back in early August. More information has surfaced, thanks to additional documents leaked to the site. Whatever surveillance/censorship concerns Dragonfly posed are far more pronounced in the wake of these new leaks.
Sources familiar with the project said that prototypes of the search engine linked the search app on a user’s Android smartphone with their phone number. This means individual people’s searches could be easily tracked – and any user seeking out information banned by the government could potentially be at risk of interrogation or detention if security agencies were to obtain the search records from Google.
Google’s Chinese search engine also contains a blacklist of terms like “human rights,” “student protest,” and “Nobel Prize,” showing the government has a deep interest in using the custom-built search engine to deter and punish dissent. None of this is surprising, other than Google’s willingness to participate in government censorship. Google does pretty much the same thing with Android phones here in the US, where everything in the ecosystem is tied to the originating phone. There are ways to prevent that, but most phone users won’t take those steps. In China, however, the phones are also registered with the government, removing the third-party hop needed to tie internet activity to a person.
Even Google’s seeming embrace of censorship and dissent deterrence may not be as surprising as it should be, as any number of social media platforms have made considerable concessions to authoritarian governments in recent years, rather than face losing market share in these countries.
The more details come out, the worse Google looks. As Ryan Gallagher reports, Google would also be complicit in replacing facts with the Chinese government’s approved narrative.
Sources familiar with Dragonfly said the search platform also appeared to have been tailored to replace weather and air pollution data with information provided directly by an unnamed source in Beijing. The Chinese government has a record of manipulating details about pollution in the country’s cities. One Google source said the company had built a system, integrated as part of Dragonfly, that was “essentially hardcoded to force their [Chinese-provided] data.”
Companies make bad decisions when faced with doing the right thing or doing the most profitable thing. Google premised its existence on not being evil. Pulling out of China lived up to that ideal. This does not. Concessions will always be made, but if these leaked documents are accurate, what Google is doing in China is far more than making small compromises to provide Chinese citizens with platforms not entirely controlled by their government. For all intents and purposes, Dragonfly is the government’s toy, built on tech underpinnings and expertise Google has apparently offered willingly.
The longer Google refuses to discuss this publicly, the worse it looks. Its continued silence will make it very difficult to fend off complaints it skews search results for political reasons or placate US government agencies demands for data or broken encryption.