Is Google Still Working On A China Search Engine It Told The World It Had Scrapped?

When Google told the world back in December that it had abandoned plans to re-launch its search service in China, what it really meant, according to a group of employees who have been monitoring the company's plans, was that it was putting the project on the back burner.

According to the Intercept, which, at this point, has established itself as the preferred venue for disgruntled Alphabet employees seeking to leak damaging information about the company, despite saying it would mothball the project, Google has continued work on some aspects of "Project Dragonfly" - the codename for its self-censoring search engine for the mainland, marking yet another example of the company misleading the press about the project.

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Google withdrew from China nearly 10 years ago under pressure from the Communist Party. But CEO Sundar Pichai has apparently decided that access to the world's second-largest economy would be worth tolerating the government's strict restrictions on political speech. Much to the consternation of Pichai, who had apparently hoped to keep the company's plans hush-hush, a group of employees have been closely monitoring internal communications after Google refused to definitively rule out ever returning to China.

They discovered emails sent by "Dragonfly"'s top managers suggesting that some developers have continued to work on the project, rather than being reassigned, as the company had initially promised.

Over the past few quarters, we have tackled different aspects of what search would look like in China. While we’ve made progress in our understanding of the market and user needs, many unknowns remain and currently we have no plans to launch.

Back in July we said at our all hands that we did not feel we could make much progress right now. Since then, many people have effectively rolled off the project while others have been working on adjacent areas such as improving our Chinese language capabilities that also benefit users globally. Thank you for all of your hard work here.

As we finalize business planning for 2019, our priority is for you to be productive and have clear objectives, so we have started to align cost centers to better reflect what people are actually working on.

Thanks again — and your leads will follow up with you on next steps.

However, while the group of rogue employees told the Intercept that they had discovered changes made since the beginning of the year to code belonging to two of the China-focused apps under development, some said these changes might have just been developers tying up loose ends before moving on to other projects.

The employees have been keeping tabs on repositories of code that are stored on Google’s computers, which they say is linked to Dragonfly. The code was created for two smartphone search apps — named Maotai and Longfei — that Google planned to roll out in China for users of Android and iOS mobile devices.

The employees identified about 500 changes to the code in December, and more than 400 changes to the code between January and February of this year, which they believe indicates continued development of aspects of Dragonfly. (Since August 2017, the number of code changes has varied between about 150 to 500 each month, one source said.) The employees say there are still some 100 workers allocated to the “cost center” associated with Dragonfly, meaning that the company is maintaining a budget for potential ongoing work on the plan.

Google sources with knowledge of Dragonfly said that the code changes could possibly be attributed to employees who have continued this year to wrap up aspects of the work they were doing to develop the Chinese search platform.

“I still believe the project is dead, but we’re still waiting for a declaration from Google that censorship is unacceptable and that they will not collaborate with governments in the oppression of their people,” said one source familiar with Dragonfly.

Whether the developers remain focused on Dragonfly or not, the lack of clarity from upper management has been disconcerting, the employees said. For a long time, Google's official motto within its code of conduct was "don't be evil." However, the company removed it last year. And while these well-intentioned employees are certainly capable of publicly shaming Google into at least acknowledging that it should change its behavior, the long-term potential for growth and profits in China is simply too powerful for any American tech giant to ignore for long.

And with that, the company's quest for the "next billion users" continues.