Last month it was revealed that, after several years of absence from the Chinese market, Google had begun developing a censored search product for the country. This was after leaving the country in 2010 because they refused to continue censoring search for the government. Since then, however, the founders of the company have returned and their views on censorship are different than the team who ran it in their absence. There's been no hesitation to censor content on YouTube and there are accusations of censoring search results.
This week, some new information was revealed about the prototype of for the censored search product, codenamed Dragonfly. Namely, the search product and therefore search terms and results would be tied to the user's phone number. While that doesn't sound like much of a problem to those of us in the West, in China it is a big deal. It is against the law to even perform a search for certain terms, including human rights and democracy, and by tying your search terms to your phone number, the government can identify and imprison those who are interested in those topics, all with Google's help.
This is not the first time that Google has agreed to give search information to the Chinese government in order to help imprison citizens for searching for these types of topics, but it all came to a close under new management. Cynthia Wong from Human Rights Watch, told The Intercept,
This is very problematic from a privacy point of view, because it would allow far more detailed tracking and profiling of people's behavior. Linking searches to a phone number would make it much harder for people to avoid the kind of overreaching government surveillance that is pervasive in China.
Human Rights Watch is not the only one taking exception to the idea of Google making this kind of correlation easy for the Chinese government. They are also up against their own employees. Over 1000 Google employees have begun a protest over the topic, and after learning about this new detail of Dragonfly, some employees have begun leaving the company. Google doesn't seem to be concerned about it just yet, releasing a statement saying,
We've been investing for many years to help Chinese users, from developing Android, through mobile apps such as Google Translate and Files Go, and our developer tools. But our work on search has been exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China.
It's possible, based on this statement, that Google could change their policies or cancel the project entirely. Unfortunately, it is unlikely based on the recent track record of the company.