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Google considering censored search engine
Published on: 2018-08-03
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Google CEO Sundar Pichai

Google CEO Sundar Pichai

Google withdrew from China eight years ago to protest the country’s censorship and online hacking. Now, the internet giant is working on a censored search engine for China that will filter websites and search terms that are blacklisted by the Chinese government, according to two people with knowledge of the plans.

Google has teams of engineers working on a search app that restricts content banned by Beijing, said the people, who asked for anonymity because they were not permitted to speak publicly about the project. The company has demonstrated the service to Chinese government officials, they added.

031Yet the existence of the project does not mean that Google’s return to China is imminent, the people cautioned. Google often builds and tests different services that never become publicly available.

Google’s reversal in China, which was reported earlier by The Intercept, is the latest example of how American tech companies are trying to tailor their products to enter the huge Chinese market, even if it means tamping down free speech. LinkedIn censors content in China, for example. And Facebook developed software to suppress certain posts from appearing on the social network, with the aim of potentially deploying it in China, though there was no indication it was offered to Chinese authorities.

Many of these overtures appear to fall short of winning over Beijing. Last month, Facebook briefly gained approval to open a subsidiary in China’s Zhejiang Province, but that approval was abruptly withdrawn after a matter of hours.

030The work is also unpopular among many of Google’s own employees, who have pushed back in recent months on issues such as gender in the workplace and how artificial intelligence should be applied to weaponry. On Wednesday, several expressed their disappointment about the China project on internal messaging platforms, according to four employees who saw the messages and who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

“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,” said Taj Meadows, a Google spokesman. “But we don’t comment on speculation about future plans.”

Although Google pulled its search engine out of China in 2010, the company has lately displayed more interest in regaining access to the world’s largest internet population. In June, Google announced a $550 million investment in the Chinese online retailer JD.com. Last year, Google unveiled plans to open a research center in China focused on artificial intelligence. And the company has released translation and file management apps for the Chinese market. Google now has more than 700 employees in China.

In the years since Google’s exit, local competitors have risen up, including China’s dominant search engine, Baidu. Beyond search, the vast majority of Google’s services, including its app store, email service and YouTube, remain inaccessible behind the Great Firewall, as the country’s system of internet controls is known.

Google is said to have teams of engineers working on a search app that restricts content banned by Beijing

Google is said to have teams of engineers working on a search app that restricts content banned by Beijing

Talks between Google and the Chinese government over the censored search engine began before the start of the recent trade war between the United States and China, one of the people said. The talks were not going well, this person added.

But the Chinese government could nonetheless use Google as a chip in its negotiations with the American government, which has been critical of the way China limits market access for United States technology companies. By letting Google’s search engine back into China, the Chinese government could give President Trump a political victory, earning some good will.

Google is a household brand in much of the world, but its name may draw blank stares from China’s younger generation who are growing up in the post-Google Chinese internet. Winning these people will be an uphill battle for Google, especially if it cannot differentiate itself much from Baidu.

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