For the first time, information that Google is developing a censored search engine codenamed Dragonfly was revealed in the late summer of this year. It was reported by The Intercept with reference to internal leaks. And, as it turned out, an aura of secrecy has been around the project for several years.
This is not unusual for new movies, games, services, and so on. However, in this case the situation was different. The task of Dragonfly was monitoring and filtering information because the customer was the Chinese government.
Inside the company, about the project became known in February 2017, although some top managers were discussing this issue since 2016. Top executives told the engineers that the search engine infrastructure would depend on a Chinese partner company with data centers in Beijing or Shanghai. The latter means that the Chinese government could receive any data from these servers. In addition, the system must associate user’s requests with their phone numbers. And considering a fact that in China exists a database with telephone numbers of all people, this means an unequivocal identification of all users.
One of the participants in the Dragonfly was Yonatan Zunger, who was offered to work on a search engine secret project. But after some time, he declared to management that such a system is unacceptable and would violate human rights in China. In response to these claims, the head of the “Chinese” direction, Scott Beaumont, did everything so that Zunger and other dissenters no longer participated in the project and knew nothing about it.
In the same 2017, Zunger left the company but three of his followers are still working there and agreed to disclose some new details, of course, on conditions of anonymity. In particular, according to them, the participants and developers of Dragonfly held meetings with a high secrecy regime. There were no written notes or other open communication. At the same time, out of 88,000 Google employees, only a few people knew about the essence of the project. Some were threatened with dismissal if they discussed the essence of their work with colleagues. According to one of the company’s employee, management took all measures to minimize data leaks.
After disclosing information, some human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch openly condemned the project and said that the company could become an accomplice in human rights violations in China. Later, the US Senate joined the case, and Vice President Michael Pence demanded that Google stop developing Dragonfly.
However, despite the internal and external resistance, the project was launched. And recently, the company officially confirmed the fact of development. Google executive director Sundar Pichai said that the corporation is considering the possibility of returning to the Chinese market, from which the company was forced to left in 2006 due to a number of blockings.
At the same time, according to The Intercept, co-founder Sergey Brin was personally interested in returning to Chinese territory, as Beaumont said. Allegedly, the co-founder of the company met with high-ranking Chinese officials to discuss the return. At the same time, Brin himself had previously denied the possibility of censorship and claimed that he had learned about Dragonfly only from the media.
One way or another, but the situation around the “censor” search engine has split Google. Recently, a number of employees signed an open petition against it. It is not clear how this story will end, but it can seriously shake Google’s market position.