Google has been working in secret over a year on projects that would give the US internet giant an opportunity to return to the lucrative Chinese market, by offering search services complying with China’s strict internet censorship, investigative news website The Intercept reported on Wednesday, citing unnamed engineers with direct knowledge of the projects.
According to the report, the censored version of Google’s search engine would offer results that exclude websites and search terms that are targeted by Chinese authorities, such as issues related to human rights, democracy, religion and peaceful protests.
The latest revelation stands in stark contrast with Google’s previous position on heavy internet censorship in China in 2010, when the company decided to stop censoring search results for Chinese users and effectively led to the company’s services to be blocked by Chinese authorities.
Over the past eight years, the majority of Google’s services, including YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps and Google Play Store, have become inaccessible in China. Smartphones based on Google’s Android operating system have been sold in the Chinese market without any of Google’s services.
Impossible to Comply
As the US internet giant attempts to return to the Chinese market, analysts warned that it would be very difficult for it to receive regulatory approval from Chinese authorities, who may not be easily satisfied with Google’s censorship efforts.
"The challenges Google faces today, when it comes to dealing with censorship requests from Chinese authorities, would be much more difficult than the situation in 2010. It would be much more difficult for Google to handle, because we have entered the ‘new era’ with new requirements. The Chinese Communist Party wants firm control of all the media and information. I believe Chinese policy makers would not allow Google to return," Zhan Jiang, a professor of communications studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told Sputnik.
The Securities Daily newspaper, an official information disclosure publication under the China Securities Regulatory Commission, reported on Thursday that the rumors of Google’s possible return to China are not true, citing relevant Chinese government departments.
In addition to blocking overseas-based websites deemed "harmful" for the general public in China, the authorities also require information service providers such as social media websites and internet search engines to remove "sensitive" content in a timely manner.
For example, after an explosion outside the US Embassy in Beijing last week, posts related to the incident were quickly removed from Chinese social media website Weibo. The name of the US Embassy in Chinese also became a "sensitive keyboard" on Weibo and searches with this phrase did not return any results related to the explosion.
Chinese internet companies like Sina, which operates Weibo, have to hire thousands of human censors to help detect and delete such content in a timely matter. Without an office in China or a large local workforce, it would be very difficult for Google to satisfy the Chinese censors, Zhan pointed out.
"It’s impossible for Google to meet the censorship requirements in China today," he said.
Be Evil or Not
Google won applause from information freedom advocates when it decided to stop complying with Chinese internet censorship, which led to its exit from the Chinese market. Many supporters hailed the company’s unofficial "don’t be evil" motto as a key to Google’s decision at the time.
However, earlier this year, the "don’t be evil" was quietly removed from the company’s corporate code of conduct, US media reported. Internet freedom advocates argued that it’s very easy for Google to break this code by assisting the Chinese authorities.
"Google could easily satisfy the authorities if they wanted to. If they come back to China with censored products, this will only be the first step. What will follow is a long list of demands from the Chinese authorities. If Google keeps satisfying these demands, they will keep the authorities happy. Google could do a lot to help the Chinese authorities not just in China, but around the world," Charlie Smith, co-founder of GreatFire.org, an NGO focusing on monitoring internet censorship in China, told Sputnik.
Smith believes that Google has the financial resources to satisfy the Chinese censors, if they’re willing to make necessary investments.
"Money solves lots of problems. Google has more than enough money to invest into setting up the censorship infrastructure. While the Chinese authorities spend over USD 10 billion on censorship each year, depending on the number of Google users in China, the company would only have to spend tens of millions of dollars to keep everything in check," he said.
The information freedom advocate pointed out that Chinese authorities could look to take advantage of Google’s advanced technology to improve its censorship capabilities.
"I think we all expected Facebook to offer some kind of censorship product to the authorities, but Google would be able to offer a better standard of censorship product if they wanted to. As a start, Google could offer the Chinese authorities increased censorship controls on Android devices. The easiest way to get back into the China market for Google would be to offer to help upgrade the censorship apparatus," he said.
The expert expressed hope that outrage from Google employees following the revelation of this controversial project can help convince company executives to reverse their decisions in pursuing a return to the Chinese market by caving in to internet censorship in China.
The views and opinions expressed by the contributors do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.