Inside Google’s Effort to Develop a Censored Search Engine in China
Google analyzed search terms entered into a Beijing-based website to help develop blacklists for a censored search engine it has been planning to launch in China, according to confidential documents seen by The Intercept.
Engineers working on the censorship sampled search queries from 265.com, a Chinese-language web directory service owned by Google.
Unlike Google.com and other Google services, such as YouTube, 265.com is not blocked in China by the country’s so-called Great Firewall, which restricts access to websites deemed undesirable by the ruling Communist Party regime.
265.com was founded in 2003 by Cai Wensheng, a Chinese entrepreneur known as the “the godfather of Chinese webmasters.” In 2008, Google acquired the website, which it now operates as a subsidiary. Records show that 265.com is hosted on Google servers, but its physical address is listed under the name of the “Beijing Guxiang Information and Technology Co.,” which is based out of an office building in northwest Beijing’s Haidian district.
265.com provides news updates, links to information about financial markets, and advertisements for cheap flights and hotels. It also has a function that allows people to search for websites, images, videos, and other content. 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.
It appears that Google has used 265.com as a de facto honeypot for market research, storing information about Chinese users’ searches before sending them along to Baidu. Google’s use of 265.com offers an insight into the mechanics behind its planned Chinese censored search platform, code-named Dragonfly, which the company has been preparing since spring 2017.
After gathering sample queries from 265.com, Google engineers used them to review lists of websites that people would see in response to their searches. The Dragonfly developers used a tool they called “BeaconTower” to check whether the websites were blocked by the Great Firewall. They compiled a list of thousands of websites that were banned, and then integrated this information into a censored version of Google’s search engine so that it would automatically manipulate Google results, purging links to websites prohibited in China from the first page shown to users.
They compiled a list of thousands of websites that were banned, and then integrated this information into a censored version of Google.
According to documents and people familiar with the Dragonfly project, teams of Google programmers and engineers have already created a functioning version of the censored search engine. Google’s plan is for its China search platform to be made accessible through a custom Android app, different versions of which have been named “Maotai” and “Longfei,” as The Intercept first reported last week.
The app has been designed to filter out content that China’s authoritarian government views as sensitive, such as information about political opponents, free speech, democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest. The censored search app will “blacklist sensitive queries” so that “no results will be shown” at all when people enter certain words or phrases, according to internal Google documents.
The documents seen by The Intercept indicate that Google’s search project is being carried out as part of a “joint venture” with another company, presumably one based in China, because internet companies providing services in China are required by law to operate their servers and data centers in the country. In January, Google entered into an agreement with the Chinese company Tencent, which Google said at the time would allow it to “focus on building better products and services.” A bipartisan group of six U.S. senators is asking Google CEO Sundar Pichai to explain whether the Tencent deal is linked to the censored search app.
It is unclear whether, as part of the joint venture, Google’s partner company would be able to unilaterally update the blacklists. Documents seen by The Intercept state that that the “joint venture will have the ability” to blacklist websites and “sensitive queries.”
One source familiar with the project told The Intercept that Google has planned to provide the partner company with an “application programming interface,” or API, that it could potentially use to add blacklisted words or phrases. The source said they believed it was likely that the third-party company would be able to “update the blacklist without Google’s approval,” though the source could not confirm this with certainty. The details about the API have not been reported before.
“We were told to avoid referencing it around our team members.”
Prior to the public exposure of Dragonfly, only a few hundred of Google’s 88,000 employees had been briefed about the project – around 0.35 percent of the total workforce.
The employees working on the project included people tasked with integrating censorship into the search results; “one box” teams focused on localizing Google’s weather and sports results for China; a group focused on building the infrastructure of the search system; and designers and Chinese-language experts who were creating the mobile app.
Select members of Google’s Gmail and YouTube teams were provided with some knowledge about the plans, which were overseen by product managers who spent time studying the profiles of people who would likely use Google in China. The internet giant’s employees in its policy, user experience, and legal departments were also briefed on the censored search effort, according to people familiar with the project.
Google staff who were involved in Dragonfly were ordered to keep quiet about it. “We were told to avoid referencing it around our team members, and if they ask [what we’re working on], to deflect questions,” said a source with knowledge of the plans, who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke to The Intercept on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to contact the media.
Following the revelations last week, as news about Dragonfly became known to most of Google’s employees for the first time, anger spread throughout the company’s offices across the world. Company bosses shut down access to documents that contained information about the censorship project. Meanwhile, staff were said to be “upset and scared” because of “total radio silence from leadership.”
A week on from the disclosure, Google’s leadership has still not commented internally about the plans, sources said. Google did not respond to a request for comment on this story. The company’s press office has so far refused to answer questions from dozens of reporters about Dragonfly, saying that it “will not comment on speculation about future plans.”
One insider told The Intercept that memes have circulated among company employees portraying images of China’s censorship. One meme showed a Chinese internet user searching for information about the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, only to receive a result saying that the atrocity was a myth.
Another meme that Google staff shared referenced Dong Yaoqiong, a 29-year-old activist who disappeared in Shanghai last month after staging a protest. Before she went missing, Dong had posted a video online of herself defacing a poster of President Xi Jinping while declaring that she opposed “the tyranny of Xi Jinping’s dictatorship and the brain-control oppression imposed by the Chinese Communist Party.”
The meme circulating inside Google depicts a search for information about Dong — but it returns no results.