Shares of China’s search giant Baidu are plunging, giving up an earlier earnings-driven gain, after a report that Google is reported to be pursuing a censored search engine for the China market.
Google, which has long contemplated how to enter the Chinese market but has so far resisted selling out and complying with Beijing’s censorship demands, has demonstrated the app which would blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion and protests, to the Chinese government, The Intercept reported earlier. It adds that a final version could be rolled out in six to nine months.
Google originally shut down its Chinese search engine in 2010, citing government attempts to “limit free speech on the web” but that no longer appears to be a binding consideration. More from The Verge:
Google previously offered a censored version of its search engine in China between 2006 and 2010, before pulling out of the country after facing criticism in the US. (Politicians said the company was acting as a “functionary of the Chinese government.”) In recent months, though, the company has been attempting to reintegrate itself into the Chinese commercial market. It launched an AI research lab in Beijing last December, a mobile file management app in January, and an AI-powered doodle game just last month.
According to internal documents provided to The Intercept by a whistleblower, Google has been developing the censored version of its search engine under the codename Dragonfly since the beginning of 2017. The search engine is being built as an Android mobile app, and will reportedly “blacklist sensitive queries” and filter out all websites blocked by China’s web censors (including Wikipedia and BBC News). The censorship will extend to Google’s image search, spell check, and suggested search features.
The whistleblower who spoke to The Intercept said China engages in censorship because they were “against large companies and governments collaborating in the oppression of their people.” They also suggested that “what is done in China will become a template for many other nations.”
As The Verge notes, Patrick Poon, a researcher with Amnesty International, agreed with this assessment. Poon told The Intercept that if Google launches a censored version of its search engine in China it will “set a terrible precedent” for other companies. “The biggest search engine in the world obeying the censorship in China is a victory for the Chinese government — it sends a signal that nobody will bother to challenge the censorship any more,” said Poon.
According to The Intercept, Google faces a number of substantial barriers before it can launch its new search app in China, including approval from officials in Beijing and “confidence within Google” that the app will be better than its main rival in China, Baidu.
While Google is eager to get a slice of China’s huge market of some 750 million web users, ambitions to re-launch its search engine may yet go nowhere. Reports in past years of plans to bring the Google Play mobile store to China, for example, have so far come to nothing, and Google regularly plans out projects it ultimately rejects.
Meanwhile relations between China and the US have worsened in recent weeks due to trade tariffs imposed by President Trump. The Intercept reports that despite this Google staff have been told to be ready to launch the app at short notice. The company’s search engine chief, Ben Gomes, reportedly told employees last month that they must be prepared in case “suddenly the world changes or [President Trump] decides his new best friend is Xi Jinping.”
Baidu, China’s largest search engine, fell 7% in pre-market trading in New York; as Bloomberg notes, the stock had climbed as much as 2.2% earlier after the company reported late on Tuesday Q2 revenue and profit that topped analyst estimates.