When news first broke in August about Google’s plans for a censored Chinese search engine, there was immediate backlash both internally and externally. As details regarding Project Dragonfly continued to leak over the ensuing months, that pushback has only grown more vehement, with executives fielding questions on the subject from US senators and Google employees launching a petition decrying the project. Now, according to The Intercept, Dragonfly is effectively dead after a massive internal rift formed between the project and the company’s privacy team.
In case you need a refresher on the topic, Google pulled out of China in 2010, with co-founder Sergey Brin stating at the time that the Chinese government’s strict rules on censorship had “the earmarks of totalitarianism.” But somewhere over the past few years Brin and several other Google executives including, according to The Intercept, CEO Sundar Pichai rekindled a strong interest in the country, even if it meant compromising the company’s prior moral stand against a search engine that would omit certain blacklisted topics and sources (think democracy and Wikipedia).
But not all parts of the company were on board – or even aware – of the new censored search engine project, according to The Intercept. A department of crucial importance, the Google privacy team, was left out of Project Dragonfly’s development – and when it discovered the truth, there was little room for reconciliation between the two parties.
According to the latest report, Google was developing its Chinese search engine with the help of a Beijing-based website called 265.com. Google bought the web directory in 2008 from billionaire Chinese entrepreneur Cai Wensheng, but doesn’t use its own search engine on the site. Instead, it funnels questions to Baidu, China’s reigning search engine. However, when developing Dragonfly, Google was able to gain data regarding web searches by people in mainland China – analysis that was crucial to the project’s development, but that would also usually be subject to review by Google’s privacy staff.
In this case, though, the privacy team was reportedly left out of the process, and didn’t learn about Project Dragonfly until the public did, in August. To put it concisely in the words of the source quoted by The Intercept, the team was “really pissed.” After much internal conflict, Dragonfly has been cut off from accessing the 265.com data, effectively stopping any progress. Several groups have also been shifted off of Dragonfly completely.
If this report proves accurate, it’s a major win against government censorship, and a strong signal that employees can force changes – even when there’s big business at stake.