NGOs have criticised Google’s reported plan to develop a censored version of its search engine in China, calling it an attack on internet freedom.

According to reports by the Intercept on Wednesday, the project was launched in December 2017 under the codename “Dragonfly” and involves an Android search app that limits access to websites blocked by Beijing. CEO of Google Sunday Pichai is said to have already met with Chinese officials and the plans are currently pending approval from mainland authorities.

“Google risks abetting Chinese government abuses with a censored version of a search engine in China,” Maya Wang, China researcher at NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), told HKFP.

Photo: Flickr.

“That Google appears to be developing this censored version of a search engine in the midst of a harsh nationwide crackdown on human rights in China — with the consultation of senior Chinese government officials — is alarming,” she added.

Google’s search engine services have long been blocked in China under the so-called Great Firewall. The US technology giant said that it withdrew from the Chinese market in 2010 in protest of online censorship and hacking. According to the Intercept’s anonymous sources, Project Dragonfly was restricted to a few hundred engineers and was not made available for public consultation.

In response to the report, a Google spokesperson told HKFP: “We provide a number of mobile apps in China, such as Google Translate and Files Go, help Chinese developers, and have made significant investments in Chinese companies like But we don’t comment on speculation about future plans.”

‘Profit before human rights’

Patrick Poon, a China researcher at Amnesty International, said the move puts money before human rights: “It will be a dark day for internet freedom if Google has acquiesced to China’s extreme censorship rules to gain market access. It is impossible to see how such a move is compatible with Google’s ‘Do the right thing’ motto, and we are calling on the company to change course.”

“For the world’s biggest search engine to adopt such extreme measures would be a gross attack on freedom of information and internet freedom. In putting profits before human rights, Google would be setting a chilling precedent and handing the Chinese government a victory.”

Google CEO Sundar Pichai
Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Photo: Wikicommons.

China has one of the strictest censorship regimes in the world, according to HRW. The ruling Communist Party led by President Xi Jinping frequently conducts widespread crackdowns on dissent, including targeting 300 human rights lawyers in 2015 and sending thousands of ethnic minorities to “re-education” centres in the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang, according to NGOs.

Cédric Alviani from Reporters Without Borders told HKFP: “China has been lobbying for years to promote the idea of ‘national sovereignty’ over the internet, which is a pretext for making it a tool of censorship and surveillance.”

“Xi Jinping’s repressive regime, by forcing Google to abide by its censorship, wins a battle against the free circulation of information over the internet.”

Violating personal data

Beijing passed its Cybersecurity Law in 2016, which requires network operators to store select information on users and provide authorities with unfettered access to data under the term “technical support.”

Wang told HKFP: “Google has also not explained how it plans to protect users from surveillance given China’s Cybersecurity Law passed in 2016, which requires companies to restrict online anonymity…”

Poon added that the move poses a threat to personal data security: “Would Google roll over and hand over personal data should the Chinese authorities request it?”

Accessing China

Google’s plan reflects a growing effort by tech companies to access the Chinese market, which boasts the world’s second-largest economy. Facebook briefly received the green light from mainland authorities to set up a US$30 million subsidiary in Hangzhou last month, before having their approval withdrawn within a matter of hours. Their website was censored in 2009 by mainland authorities.

Last year, Apple removed hundreds of apps that allow users to avoid censorship from its download store in China at the request of the Beijing government.

Alviani told HKFP: “After Apple’s decision to remove VPNs from its Chinese store and to host its Chinese iCloud on local servers, Google’s decision would set a new precedent that could encourage other major online contents distributors, especially Facebook and Linkedin, to abide by the Chinese censorship model.”

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.