Google executives admitted for the first time this week that they’re looking to get their search engine up and running in China after a hiatus of almost a decade.
At the company’s weekly all-staff meeting, the project was discussed by co-founder Sergey Brin — the very executive most closely associated with the decision in 2010 to pull out of China. It was a widely lauded move by Google managers, led by Brin, who argued that they’d rather leave than subject their search tool to China’s stringent rules that filter out politically sensitive results, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
The change of heart is also the clearest sign yet that some Googlers view the pullout as a costly miscalculation. That’s locked the company out of what is now the largest internet market, where hundreds of millions of people use homegrown services from Baidu Inc., Tencent Holdings Ltd., Meituan Dianping and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. to search, communicate, order food and shop online.
Other US technology companies stayed in China and have tried to influence the government from the inside, rather than disengaging. Apple Inc., one of the few US tech giants with a thriving Chinese business, is now worth $1 trillion – a crown Google parent Alphabet Inc. might have captured first if it had an equivalent operation in the world’s most populous country. Mozilla, a progressive organization that’s no fan of censorship, has operated a version of its Firefox browser in China for more than a decade, preferring to adapt its approach rather than leave.
Priyendra Deshwal, a software engineer who worked on Google search projects from 2007 to 2012, said there was internal debate about the decision in 2010. He recalled a meeting where co-founders Larry Page and Brin answered employee questions about China, with Brin taking the lead. It wasn’t obvious to rank-and-file Googlers that the company should give up on the country.
“We could see both sides of the coin,” Deshwal said. “There was debate in the sense of it being a very big business opportunity lost, but also an example of the company standing by its principles.”
Page and Brin presented the move as a clear example of Google’s “don’t be evil” motto, Deshwal added. “At that time, the company made the decision based on principles and not wanting to operate where it didn’t agree with the way the country was run.”
Google’s top management committee decided to pull out of China based on a black-and-white view of censorship at the time, according to a former executive. The business implications of leaving were considered, but limiting the flow of information online in any way was considered bad and Google’s involvement in such activities could have damaged its brand in the rest of the world, said the person, who asked not to be identified discussing internal company deliberations.
Now, the business case for engaging with China has grown, while the issue of censorship online has become more nuanced, according to the person. Germany has strong anti-hate speech rules, Thailand limits what can be said about its royal family online, and Europe has a right-to-be-forgotten law that lets people ask Google to remove old information about them from search results. To free-speech purists, these are also undesirable forms of online censorship, the person noted.
Google also has a different leader these days, Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai, with fewer qualms on the topic. After recent reports that Google is developing a censored search service for China, Pichai confirmed to employees Thursday that the company is considering the controversial project, framing the effort as “exploratory” and in “early stages.”
Google’s new China effort, code-named Dragonfly, was kept secret from most employees until recent reports, and the revelation has sparked a firestorm inside the company. About 1,400 employees signed a letter protesting the move, saying it compromises the company’s values.
At Thursday’s meeting, Pichai argued that depriving Chinese people of access to Google products wouldn’t help. “I genuinely do believe we have a positive impact when we engage around the world and I don’t see any reason why that would be different in China,” he said, according to a transcript of the meeting provided to Bloomberg.
Brin, who had driven the exodus in 2010, told the Wall Street Journal at the time that China’s policies of censorship and surveillance shared the “same earmarks of totalitarianism” as Soviet Russia, where he was born. On Thursday, he was more equivocal. He told employees in a rambling explanation that questions about projects in China come up “every year or so” and “we experiment with what it might look like.” “There’s a handful of things we have been able to ship in China and that’s great,” he said. “You know, it’s slow-going and complicated.”
In 2017, a Chinese lawmaker said Google Scholar, a tool for searching academic publications online, was on a priority list of services the government wanted to bring back to the country. On Thursday, Brin cited that product as an example of the company’s efforts to get back into China – and compromises that come with that. Providing search for Google Scholar in China “would have a certain set of trade-offs be it for working with a partner to provide a certain kind of look and certain caveats,” he said.
Google’s China efforts may be less controversial inside the company than recent work with the Pentagon. Earlier this year, workers revolted over Project Maven, a contract with the US Department of Defense to use artificial intelligence to analyze military drone footage. Far more employees spoke out against Project Maven than the number who oppose Dragonfly.
Some Googlers have expressed support for Dragonfly on internal message boards. Google has a mission of organizing the world’s information, and it shouldn’t exclude a fifth of the planet, one person wrote in a post viewed by Bloomberg News. Another said that boycotting the country was not an effective way to influence the Chinese government or “bring any positive change.”
Google’s decision to leave China contrasts with internet rival Mozilla. It has maintained a presence in the country for well over a decade and its Firefox browser partners with Chinese search engines that censor results for the government. Mozilla’s Chinese operation is run separately from the rest of the organization and it has distributed software tools online in China that aren’t open source, which made some engineers uncomfortable, according to Andreas Gal, a former Mozilla executive.
“I don’t remember any time it rose to the point where we considered leaving China,” Gal said. “There was certainly a degree of backing off from some of your moral high ground in order to operate in China.”
Even if Google pushes ahead in the face of employee complaints, there’s no guarantee the Chinese government will let it come back to the mainland in a major way.
Deshwal said he’s skeptical that Google can make a popular Chinese search service now. “I don’t see how magically they get major search market share,” he said. “I’d probably bet against the company in that respect. Baidu is so dominant in that market in search.”
Wesley Chan, a former Google Ventures partner and product leader who left in 2014, said the search giant made the right call in 2010. “There was lots of pressure to leave and Google did get hacked,” he added. “It’s hard to do business in a country where elements of the government are attacking you.”