Inside Google’s Plan to Launch a Censored Search Engine in China

The reporter who revealed the secret project shares what’s behind the internet giant’s ambitions—and why it may even have been kept hidden from one of Google’s founders.

Google China.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Thinkstock and Google.

Earlier this month, the Intercept broke the news that Google was building a secret program called Dragonfly, a censored search engine the company was potentially hoping to bring to China. Unlike the Google search that’s used in the rest of the world, this search engine would block websites that are banned by the Chinese government and would not answer certain questions that the Chinese government has blacklisted.

To learn more about Dragonfly, I recently spoke with Ryan Gallagher, a U.K.-based investigative journalist who reports on digital security and state surveillance issues for the Intercept. In our conversation, part of this week’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast If Then, we discussed why Google wants so desperately to enter China, why many of its employees oppose the plan, and how even a co-founder of the company may have been kept in the dark as Dragonfly was developed. Gallagher detailed how Google CEO Sundar Pichai has had several highly secretive meetings with the Chinese government about bringing Google to China over the past year—and the timeline of Google’s plans to deploy the project once Beijing gave the green light.

Read or listen to our conversation below, or get the show via Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcher, or Google Play.

April Glaser: Can you tell us more about this project? When did it start? How far along in development is it? What do we know now?

Ryan Gallagher: The plan Google has been working on since, well, spring 2017 took off in quite a serious way. It began developing an Android app for Android devices that people will be using in China to access a censored version of Google search. It would be like a version of Google that would restrict Chinese people’s access to information that the ruling Communist Party regime finds undesirable, such as information about human rights or information about democracy, political opponents, and even religion—very broad categories of information that are sort of blacked out from the internet that’s accessible in China, and Google would have to comply with that to launch the app.

They’ve been working to develop this since early last year, but actually this has been part of a broader strategy of the CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai, when he took over the helm of the company in 2015. He really wants to get back into China. And he has been pushing slowly, incrementally. Over the last two years, Google’s been upping its presence in China. Of course, search is at the center of everything Google does, so Sundar wants to launch the search again in China.

You said in your reporting that this has already been demonstrated to Chinese government officials?

Yes. Sundar has been out and has had several meetings with some of the top officials in the Chinese government, and one of them last December—December 2017—he had a closed-door private meeting with Wang Huning, one of President Xi Jinping’s top foreign policy advisers. This was a private meeting—Pichai wasn’t even allowed to take any of his own assistants or anything into the meeting. It was like an absolutely secretive little meeting he had. And so they’ve been having these high-level meetings with the Chinese officials on this project. They’ve shown demonstrations of [the search product]—they’ve been pushing very hard to do it.

Since we broke this story, Google leadership was silent on it for two weeks. On [Aug. 16] they made a statement—internally they talked to employees briefly about it, and they tried to play it down a little bit. They said it was exploratory, that it was a little bit far away from launching stage, but according to my information, it’s not the case at all. What I was told and documents that I’ve seen show that this was extremely serious. They were told as recently as last month that they must have it in a launch-ready state—ready to go within a matter of weeks—pending approval from Chinese officials. That’s the only roadblock that they’ve had, until obviously we revealed it, and now there is a huge backlash and that’s probably a bigger problem for them than anything else.

You said search is, in many ways, what Google is. It is really central to Google’s whole product suite. And to operate in China would be a massive market for Google. It’s the world’s largest internet market, and China represents a fifth of the world’s population. This is not the first time Google has had a search product in China—there was one in 2006 that operated for four years, until 2010. Was that search engine back then censored? And can you tell us why Google pulled out?

Yeah, it was censored, and that was controversial. There were congressional hearings about it. Senators and representatives were calling—Google at one point was labeled as being equivalent to Nazi collaborators. That was some of their rhetoric that was coming out of the Congress at the time. There were very heated discussions back then over the complexity and censorship. So, yes, there was a huge amount of heat getting put on Google for that. In the end they pulled out, partly because of the censorship, which was getting incrementally worse.

Google had this idea, this thought, If we go in there, maybe we can push back against the censorship and we can help open up the Chinese internet? But actually what happened by the end of that four-year period was that Google was finding it was being asked to censor more and more as opposed to less and less.

Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders, he was very uncomfortable with it. He’d grown up in the Soviet Union and he had this personal experience of living under an oppressive regime and he couldn’t tolerate the censorship. But also, in the lead-up to pulling out in 2010, there was a massive hack of Google’s network, and Google was blaming it on the Chinese government. There appeared to be an attempt to hack into human-rights activists’ and journalists’ email accounts that were on Gmail. And so that was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back, and they pulled out in 2010.

This is part of the reason why it’s kind of extraordinary that, eight years on, they’re kind of reversing on everything that was said eight years ago, even though not much has actually changed in terms of the circumstances in China. If anything, it’s actually gotten a lot worse again with the censorship and the surveillance, and all kinds of draconian laws have been brought in since 2010 that are making the situation more extreme in that regard. So you know this is why it’s been such a big story, because a lot of people have been quite shocked by the kind of policy reversal, which is a massive shift on their position in 2010.

It’s also interesting because in June, Google unveiled its own principles for ethical uses of its artificial intelligence programs, which are central to so many things that Google does. One of those principles, which would apply here because Google search uses artificial intelligence, was commitment to not design or deploy “technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.” Well, the human-rights community has come out in strong condemnation of Google for its plan to deploy a censored search engine in China—Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders. What’s the concern from the human-rights community here?

There’s a bigger question here. It’s not just about the censorship—obviously this is a massive, massive part of it—but also, to operate as internet company in China now, they have this thing called the data-localization laws, and it means that any company that wants to go into China has to locate its data centers, and servers, etc., within the Chinese mainland. And that creates new issues in terms of privacy—how do you protect your customers’ private information that you’re holding if it’s going to be maintained on the Chinese mainland? And consequently, the Chinese authorities can access that data. There are so many issues. It’s a massive can of worms that Google opened by going back into China.

What happens when the Chinese authorities come to Google and demand they provide information on a certain human-rights activist, a certain dissident. Google has been forced to because the Chinese authorities will actually have the courage to go in to seize the servers or the hard drives or whatever it may be. And then the end result of that is that dissident or that activist being thrown into a detention camp or one of these so called re-education camps or something like that. And that has happened in the past. Yahoo, about a decade ago, got in a terrible situation where they ended up having to hand over data on a Chinese activist, and that activist was then subsequently thrown in jail. So there are very real consequences that can come out of this for Chinese citizens, and Google hasn’t explained at all how it’s assessed any of these dangers and risks and taken them into consideration.

Right, and so we’re not just talking about Google being complicit with the government deciding what people can and cannot know, or in terms of Google handing over user data to the government that could be used in dangerous, abusive ways, but also paving the way for other governments to make similar requests of Google. Now you also mentioned in your reporting that Google is already operating in China in some ways. There is an app on WeChat, which is China’s kind of large social media platform, and also a website, 265.com. Can you tell us a little about Google already operating in China?

It has been for several years, particularly since Pichai took over in 2015. It has been gradually upping their presence in China. Now, when it pulled out the search engine in 2010, it actually didn’t really fully leave China. It had an advertising team that’s been based in China, who sells ad space on foreign Google servers, like, say, YouTube—it’s operating in Hong Kong or other parts of the world that are not censored. Still, Chinese companies buy ad space for Google overseas, and Google has been selling it. In the last couple years, they invested more than half a billion dollars in an online company called Jd.com. They launched an artificial intelligence research center in Beijing. They launched a Google translate app, specific to the Chinese market. The WeChat game is also a file-manager app too.

This is all a lot of activity from Google in this area. And this is all part of a broader strategy to basically ingratiate itself—Google as a company—with the Chinese government to make the Chinese government more comfortable again with Google, to show the Chinese government that Google is willing to invest in China and that Google can be good for China. The ultimate aim of that was to get to the position where Google would then get permission to launch the search. And that’s what it’s needed—it actually needed to get approvals from the Chinese government’s internet regulator and it’s been building up to that [relationship] for years now.

Can you fill us in on the internal Google arguments that have been happening and the kind of clashes that have been happening inside the company as a result of your reporting here?

The claim that this is not being well developed, that is an absolute nonsense—it is a total lie. I mean, it’s not true and the documents are clear. The information I have from sources is really, really good. This thing was extremely serious, to the point that last month, they were told they had to have it in a launch-ready state, to be ready to go live within a matter of weeks, pending the approval from the Chinese government. The only thing that was delaying and causing them problems was actually the political issues around these trade wars going on—because of the tariffs that President Trump’s been putting on China. That has actually slowed down Google’s discussions with the Chinese government. That was what we were talking about last month before we exposed it. This thing was so completely serious and it could have been launched as soon as things changed with the trade war.

There were only a few hundred of Google’s employees that actually had knowledge of the plan, and there are 88,000 employees at Google worldwide, so the percentage that knew was about, I worked it out—0.35 percent of the entire workforce had knowledge of all this. So this was kept extremely secret, partly because of the political control they knew it would exploit if it got out.

When it did get out, the news spread—people could read it online and there was a huge flurry of reporting that came out as soon as we broke the story, and other news organizations were also able to collaborate what we reported. And the response inside the company? A lot of people were very, very angry. They were very angry because they didn’t know about it. They felt that it was like a betrayal because Google claims to have quite an open and transparent workplace where people can discuss problems, share issues, debate whatever’s going on in their working life, and they can do that openly.

But the other dimension was the fact that not only was it kept secret from them, but the project itself—to go and to be complicit in Chinese government censorship. For a lot of Google employees, that’s not what they signed up for. They kind of believe in the mission statement of Google to open up the world’s information, not to be evil out there.

One of the extraordinary details that we’ve learned in the last few days was that Sergey Brin, the co-founder of the company, said that he had no idea that this was going on—that he learned about this from the news reports itself. That just stunned me because he, in 2010, was the one inside Google advocating strongly to get out of China because he couldn’t stomach the censorship. The idea that the company would now do a complete 180 on its censorship position regarding China and not loop in Sergey at all, so that he’s completely unaware of it—and he’s a co-founder of the company and still on the board of directors—I was really baffled by that.

I knew that he had taken a more hands-off role, but he’s still on the board of directors, and given that he has this strong position on censorship, it was just extraordinary to me that he never knew about it. I think that actually that explains why there was a long silence from Google internally before they actually confronted employees about it, because they were probably having to get Sergey and other members of the board up to speed on exactly what was going on.

It’s still not clear to me who on the board, if anyone, knew about it, or if this was just being pushed through by Sundar. I presume some of them must have known about it—it’s such a massive thing strategically and politically for the company. It would be remarkable if no one on the board knew about it.