How Google is trying to develop a censored search engine for China
The Intercept edition was able to read confidential documents describing how Google analyzed the search queries on the Beijing website in order to develop black lists of words for the search engine with censorship, which the company plans to launch in China.
Engineers work with a censored search site from 265.com, a Chinese site directory owned directly by Google.
Unlike services like Google.com or YouTube, 265.com is not blocked in China by the so-called “ great Chinese firewall ”, which limits access to sites that the Chinese Communist Party considers unreliable.
265.com was founded in 2003 by Cai Wenshen, a Chinese entrepreneur, known as the “godfather of Chinese webmasters”. In 2008, Google acquired this site, which now operates as a division of the company. The analysis shows that 265.com is located on Google’s servers, and its physical address belongs to Beijing Guxiang Information and Technology Co., based in an office building in the north-west of Beijing Haidian District.
At 265.com you can find news updates, links to information on financial markets, advertising for cheap flights and hotels. Also there is the ability to search for sites, images, videos and other content. However, all search queries are redirected to Baidu, the most popular search engine in China, Google’s main competitor in the country.
Apparently, Google used 265.com as a honeypot for marketing research, saving information on user searches before sending them to Baidu. The use of the site by the company reveals to us the details of the mechanics behind the search platform with censorship planned for opening , known under the code name Dragonfly, which the company has been preparing since spring 2017.
By gathering sample requests from 265.com, Google engineers used them to examine the list of sites that people see in response to entered queries. The Dragonfly developers used the BeaconTower tool to check if these sites are being blocked by the Chinese firewall. They made a list of thousands of blocked sites, and integrated this information into the Google search engine version with censorship, so that it automatically influenced the results of search results, and did not issue sites that were banned in China on the first page, which is visible to users.
According to documents and people familiar with the project Dragonfly, a team of programmers and engineers at Google have already created a working version of the search engine with censorship. Google plans to open a search platform in China, access to which will be possible through a special mobile application for Android, which can be found under various names, in particular, Maotai and Longfei.
The application was specifically designed to filter out content that passes by the authoritarian Chinese government under the heading "sensitive", for example, information about political opponents, freedom of speech, democracy, human rights and peaceful protests. The application with censorship will “send sensitive requests to the blacklist,” and in response to certain words and phrases “no results will be shown”, as written in Google’s internal documents.
From the analysis of the documents received by The Intercept, it is clear that this Google search project is being developed as part of a joint venture with another company, probably located in China, because Internet companies are required by law to keep their servers and data centers in the country. In January, Google entered into an agreement with Tencent , a Chinese company , and commented on it as follows: cooperation will allow it to “concentrate on creating improved versions of products and services.” A bipartisan group of six US senators is asking Google CEO Sundar Pichai to clarify whether the deal is related to Tencent with a search proposal that supports censorship.
It is unclear whether the partner company Google within the joint venture can update black lists unilaterally. Documents submitted to the editorial board say that “the joint venture will have the opportunity” to add sites and “sensitive requests” to the black list.
One source familiar with the project told the newsroom that Google had planned to provide the partner company with an “application programming interface,” an API that could potentially be used to add to the list of prohibited phrases and words. The source said that it is likely that a third-party company will be able to “update the black list without Google’s approval,” although the source cannot guarantee this. Details of the work of the API have not been previously reported.
Before the release of information on Dragonfly, only a few hundred out of 88,000 Google employees found out about this project - about 0.35% of the staff.
Among the employees working on the project there are people whose task is to introduce censorship into search results. One team concentrates on the localization of weather and sports scores for China; another is working on a search engine infrastructure; the third consists of designers and experts on the Chinese language, creating a mobile application.
Elected members of the Gmail and YouTube teams were informed about these plans under the supervision of product managers who spent time studying profiles of people who are likely to use Google in China. Also, people familiar with the project say that the development of search with censorship was reported to employees from the policy development department, user experience and the legal department.
Employees of the company associated with the project Dragonfly, ordered not to talk about it. “We were told not to tell our team members about it, and if they ask what we are working on, do not respond,” said a source who knows about these plans, who, like other sources for this interview, wished to remain anonymous , because I had no right to communicate with the media.
Following the revelations about the Dragonfly project, which most of Google’s employees first learned about, anger began to spread throughout the company's offices around the world. Bosses close access to documents containing information about this censorship project. The workers were ordered to be “in frustrated and frightened feelings” due to “complete silence from the management”.
A week after the disclosure of this information, Google management did not release any internal comments about its plans. Google does not respond to requests to comment on this story. The press office has so far refused to answer dozens of reporters' questions about the Dragonfly project, responding that “they will not comment on any guesses about future plans.”
An insider told The Intercept that memes about Chinese censorship are circulating in the company. One meme demonstrates how a Chinese user searches for information on events in Tiananmen Square from 1989 , and receives in response a message stating that all events are fictitious.
Another meme refers to Don Yaoji [ Dong Yaoqiong ], a 29-year-old activist who disappeared in Shanghai last month after organizing a protest. Before she disappeared, she published a video on the Internet that spoils a poster depicting President Xi Jinping, declaring that she is in "opposition to Xi Jinping's dictatorship and dictatorship, as well as oppression through brainwashing by the Chinese Communist Party."
In the meme information search on Don does not return any results.