Google’s secret Project Dragonfly finally 'terminated'

The search engine for China planned to censor topics including human rights, democracy and peaceful protests

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After months of sustained criticism, Google has finally terminated Project Dragonfly, a version of its search engine designed to operate within the confines of strict Chinese censorship laws.

Karan Bhatia, VP public policy at Google, told the US Senate on Tuesday that Google had abandoned its plans to release a Chinese search engine months prior to the Senate Judiciary Hearing. "We have no plans to launch Search in China and there is no work being undertaken on such a project," he said.

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The project has been heavily criticised by both internal and external sources since first coming to light in 2018. Google had publicly promised to boycott China over the country's involvement in attacks against Google servers in 2010, and Project Dragonfly has largely been seen as a betrayal of this commitment among employees.

Google workers penned an open letter to senior management, siding with Amnesty International, to bring public attention to their disapproval of their company's work.

"Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be," said the 346 employees in the open letter. "Providing the Chinese government with ready access to user data, as required by Chinese law, would make Google complicit in oppression and human rights abuses."

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The project was kept a secret until a report by The Intercept exposed it last year.It was reported in December 2018 that the project was indefinitely placed on hold due to internal conflicts resulting from Google leaving its privacy experts in the dark about Dragonfly.

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In March 2019, it was revealed secret work was re-ignited on the project as a small group of top Google managers began to conduct a performance review of the search product designed to omit information about human rights, peaceful protests, democracy and religion. The review was allegedly kept a secret from regular employees to avoid intense scrutiny of Dragonfly.

18/12/2018: Google's Project Dragonfly has its wings clipped -Google's pivotal data analysis system has all but been shut down, effectively stopping the development of the tech giant's Chinese censored search engine,dubbed Project Dragonfly.

The reasoning behind putting the project on hold - reportedly indefinitely - is down to internal rifts surrounding privacy, according to sources close to the project. Google engineers had acquired large datasets from Google's control of 265.com, a leading Chinese search engine, using an API and used it to tailor algorithms for Project Dragonfly, The Intercept reports.

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By analysing the data, the engineers could look for common search terms that Chinese people were searching for in Mandarin and using that data to build an early Dragonfly prototype.

For example, using the dataset Google was able to cross reference common search terms with search results from its own search engine and then using a tool known as "BeaconTower", it could check which of the links would be blocked by China's Great Firewall.

Using these results, engineers could build a blacklist of sites, the links of which would be purged from results spat out from Dragonfly - these would include neutral news sites and aggregators such as Wikipedia and the BBC.

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Analysis of user search queries must usually be tackled under strict conditions after a review of the data from the privacy team who only discovered what the engineers were up to after the initial press report. One Google source said the privacy team were "really pissed [off]" - naturally.

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Following some serious discussions between the privacy team and the executives of the project, the privacy team forbade the engineers to continue the analysis of the dataset acquired using 265.com which stopped progress.

Amnesty Internation's Secretary General Kumi Naidoo welcomed the suggestions that Dragonfly will be culled, but remained concerned over the reasoning behind the move.

"Media reports that Google is shelving Dragonfly follow intense criticism of the project from human rights groups and Google's own staff. We would welcome a decision by Google to drop Dragonfly and abandon its plans to cooperate in large-scale censorship and surveillance by the Chinese government," Naidoo said in a statement.

"Going ahead with Project Dragonfly would represent a massive capitulation on human rights by one of the world's most powerful companies.

"It's worrying that these reports suggest that Project Dragonfly has been shelved due to discrepancies over internal process, rather than over human rights concerns.

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"As Amnesty International and others set out in aletterto Sundar Pichai last week, threats to the rights to freedom of expression and privacy for millions of people in China should have never seen this project come into being."

Google issued a statement from CEO Sundar Pichai addressed to Rep. Marino at Congress last week, which read:"Right now there are no plans for us to launch a search product in China," said Pichai. We are, in general, always looking to see how best it's part of our core mission and our principles to try hard to provide users with information.

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"We have evidence, based on every country we've operated in, us reaching out and giving users more information has a very positive impact and we feel that calling. But right now there are no plans to launch in China. To the extent we approach a position like that, I will be fully transparent, including with policy makers here, and engage and consult widely."

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Google acquired Beijing-based website 265.com in 2008. The site provides visitors with news updates, ads for cheap travel deals and horoscopes with a search engine built into it too. It claims to be China's most used homepage but search results are redirected to Baidu, China's actual most used search engine and a direct competitor of Google's.

Google gathered the data by intercepting search queries from 265.com and harvesting them before sending the queries off to Baidu for a response to the user.

Project Dragonfly has been developing to regain market dominance in China following its boycott of the country in 2010 when China performed targeted hacks on Google users' Gmail accounts.

Back in November, IT Pro reported on the large open letter signed by hundreds of Google employees opposing the project because of China's censorship laws which ban search results on topics relating to human rights, democracy, religion and peaceful protesting.

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"Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be," said the 743 employees in the open letter. "Providing the Chinese government with ready access to user data, as required by Chinese law, would make Google complicit in oppression and human rights abuses."

Speaking at the Wired 25 summit, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the time had come to re-evaluate its position on the "wonderful, innovative" Chinese market.

Google declined to comment further when asked why its privacy team were left in the dark.

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