Tech giant Google has been forced to shut down a data analysis system it was using to develop a censored search engine for China after members of the company’s privacy team raised internal complaints that it had been kept secret from them according to a new report by The Intercept which first broke news of the project this summer.
The internal rift over the system has had massive ramifications, effectively ending work on the censored search engine, known as Dragonfly, according to two sources familiar with the plans. The incident represents a major blow to top Google executives, including CEO Sundar Pichai, who have over the last two years made the China project one of their main priorities.
The Beijing-based website, 265.com, is a Chinese-language web directory service that claims to be “China’s most used homepage.” Google purchased the site in 2008 from Cai Wensheng, a billionaire Chinese entrepreneur. 265.com provides its Chinese visitors with news updates, information about financial markets, horoscopes, and advertisements for cheap flights and hotels. It also has a function that allows people to search for websites, images, and videos.
However, search queries entered on 265.com are redirected to Baidu, the most popular search engine in China and Google’s main competitor in the country. As The Intercept reported in August, it appears that Google has used 265.com as a honeypot for market research, storing information about Chinese users’ searches before sending them along to Baidu.
According to two Google sources, engineers working on Dragonfly obtained large datasets showing queries that Chinese people were entering into the 265.com search engine. At least one of the engineers obtained a key needed to access an “application programming interface,” or API, associated with 265.com, and used it to harvest search data from the site. Members of Google’s privacy team, however, were kept in the dark about the use of 265.com.
The engineers used the data they pulled from 265.com to learn about the kinds of things that people located in mainland China routinely search for in Mandarin.
Under normal company protocol, analysis of people’s search queries is subject to tight constraints and should be reviewed by the company’s privacy staff, whose job is to safeguard user rights. But the privacy team only found out about the 265.com data access after The Intercept revealed it, and were “really pissed,” according to one Google source.
“The 265 data was integral to Dragonfly,” said one source. “Access to the data has been suspended now, which has stopped progress.”
Following years of being absent from China’s web search market, Google had wanted to launch the Dragonfly product in early 2019, although now, amid outcry inside and outside of Google, the pressure seems to have caused leaders to “shelve it at least in the short term,” said the report, which cited two unnamed sources. Many Google engineers working on the project have reportedly been reassigned to projects related to Brazil, Indonesia, Russia and other countries.
Last week, Pichai, Google’s CEO, appeared before Congress, where he faced questions on Dragonfly. Pichai stated that “right now” there were no plans to launch the search engine, though refused to rule it out in the future.