Google fails to thread the China needle, again

Google’s secret project to build a censored search engine to get back into the Chinese market is on its last legs — if not already doomed — according to the latest report from The Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher, who broke the original story.

What appears to have finally killed the project is an internal dispute over data use. The Intercept reports the small, secretive Dragonfly team ran up against the company’s wider bureaucracy, and got smushed.

A representative for Google did not respond to a request for comment about the latest report, or the company’s China plans.

Chinese whispers

While leaks and reporting about Dragonfly undoubtedly sped up its demise, few observers outside the Silicon Valley bubble thought the project had much of a chance: if it had overcome opposition within Google, it would have eventually run afoul of US regulators or the very Chinese censors the project was designed to ameliorate.

We know this because Google has been here before. In the 2000s, Google spent years attempting to thread the needle of providing a useful — albeit censored — search engine to Chinese users while staving off demands for greater and greater control from Beijing and criticism from US lawmakers and international human rights groups.

This culminated in Google pulling out of the market in 2010, amid claims Chinese hackers had broken into the Gmail accounts of dissidents.

The failure of was a pertinent example of Beijing’s unwillingness to compromise when it came to censorship, even for one of the world’s biggest companies. And that was in 2010 — the environment Google would have entered today would have been a far more hostile one, with a vastly empowered censorship and surveillance network, and a government even less willing to brook defiance from a foreign interloper.

Many observers warned Google about this. Former staffers who worked on the original China project went public about why that failed. Observers within and outside the company objected that Dragonfly would be a compromise of Google’s purported values, and would only be used as a stick to beat the company with by other censorious regimes.

Pichai pressed on regardless, until this month’s abrupt reversal. Even in denying immediate plans to launch in China to Congress, he nevertheless maintained that “it’s our duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information.”

While Pichai may have a genuine belief in Google’s stated mission to expand access to information, rather than just a desire to cash in on the huge Chinese market, he nevertheless fell for the same China bug that has bedeviled countless other tech firms.

No matter how many times they fail to crack China, Silicon Valley CEOs appear unable to give up on the country.

Mark Zuckerberg spent years schmoozing Chinese officials — handing out copies of President Xi Jinping’s book, running in the Beijing smog — to no avail. Amazon tried and failed in China, as did Uber.
Only Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, recently photographed with the Dalai Lama, seems to have given up on pleasing the censors.

What he appears to understand — and many of his rivals miss — is that there is no way Twitter as we know it could operate in China, just as there is no way Facebook or Google as we know them could.

Only by making major compromises with the censors was Google able to launch a Chinese search product in the 2000s, and even that wasn’t enough. Beijing kept demanding more and more, frustrating Google executives and causing the company problems with US regulators. When Google wouldn’t play ball, China allegedly hacked the company to get at user data.

The compromises made for Dragonfly were reportedly even greater, but they too would likely not have been enough. Either Google could have continued to play ball — giving up more and more user data and making more and more compromises on content, just as Chinese companies do — or it could have taken a stand, and been ejected all over again.

Dragonfly is (reportedly) dead. Maybe this time, Google’s China dreams will die with it.

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