Report: Google plans to re-enter China with government-approved search app

According to a report in The Intercept, Google is going to formally re-enter the Chinese search market. The company, reportedly, is going to offer censorship of keywords and topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese government, including “human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest.”

Apparently talks between Google and Chinese officials have been ongoing for some time. Government officials have been shown prototypes, which presumably have met with their satisfaction. The Intercept says that a finalized mobile search app “could be launched in the next six to nine months.”

Nearly a decade ago, in January 2010, Google abruptly exited the Chinese market after Gmail was hacked by entities or individuals associated with the Chinese government, seeking to identify and crack down on human-rights activists. Google had, up to that point, been self-censoring search results in China but decided to discontinue the practice after the hacking incident.

As Google wrote at the time of the decision:

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

Since that decision there has been a debate within the company about whether it should seek to re-enter the market. Then Google CEO Eric Schmidt expressed multiple times a desire to remain in the country if possible. Accordingly, Google started to soften its rhetoric and tone on China within a couple of years after the Gmail hacking.

China is the largest internet market in the world and, for that reason, it’s nearly impossible to resist the financial lure of the country — even with the moral and ethical compromises doing business there requires.

According to The Intercept’s report:

Google’s Chinese search app will automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall. When a person carries out a search, banned websites will be removed from the first page of results, and a disclaimer will be displayed stating that “some results may have been removed due to statutory requirements.” Examples cited in the documents of websites that will be subject to the censorship include those of British news broadcaster BBC and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

The search app will also “blacklist sensitive queries” so that “no results will be shown” at all when people enter certain words or phrases, the documents state. The censorship will apply across the platform: Google’s image search, automatic spell check and suggested search features will incorporate the blacklists, meaning that they will not recommend people information or photographs the government has banned.

The story also says knowledge of these moves within the company has been restricted to only a few top executives. The public disclosure of this information is almost certain to result in controversy and potential employee protest.

Google is not commenting on “speculation about future plans.” Earlier this year there was open employee revolt and a few employees resigned in protest of Google’s intended use of its AI technology to support US Defense Department initiatives. This prompted the development of an AI manifesto of sorts, wherein Google promised not to use its AI technology to cause harm.

About The Author

Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog, Screenwerk, about connecting the dots between digital media and real-world consumer behavior. He is also VP of Strategy and Insights for the Local Search Association. Follow him on Twitter or find him at Google+.

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