Google's plan to return to China faces criticism

Dragonfly could mark Google's return to the censored Chinese internet

Dragonfly could mark Google's return to the censored Chinese internet

A Google sign is seen during the China International Import Expo (CIIE), at the National Exhibition and Convention Center in Shanghai, China. (Aly Song/Reuters)
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University professor Scott Romaniuk isn't surprised that Google wants to come back to China.

With some of the world's most-connected citizens amongst its population of approximately 1.4 billion people, Romaniuk, who is a postdoctoral research fellow in security studies at the University of Alberta's China Institute, calls China a "vast, vast market."

However, Google's secretive work on 'Project Dragonfly,' has raised concerns about adherence to Google's code of ethics. This is because Project Dragonfly is a search engine that would regulate access to information according to the ruling Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) so-called 'Great Firewall of China' online censorship and surveillance policies.

Reports about Project Dragonfly's existence first began to emerge in August 2018, but a recent letter penned by the group 'Google Employees Against Dragonfly' has cast doubt on Google's decision to bring its search engine back to mainland China.

"Dragonfly would also enable censorship and government-directed disinformation, and destabilize the ground truth on which popular deliberation and dissent rely," reads an excerpt from the same Nov. 27 letter.

Google first pulled its search engine out of mainland China in 2010, with executives at the time saying that they were concerned about the government's censorship and surveillance infrastructure.

Still, if Google does go back to China, the company wouldn't be the first Western organization that has worked with the Chinese government despite the CCP's controversial positions on censorship, mass surveillance and dissent.

"Western communication companies played an instrumental role in helping to set up the initial framework for China's subsequent censorship practices," Romaniuk explained to Spark host Nora Young.

An image of the Google's 'Translate' app on an Android smartphone. Google Translate is one of the few Google apps not banned in China. (Sameer Chhabra/CBC)

He explained that companies like now-bankrupt telecommunications equipment manufacturer Nortel Networks supplied "communication devices, routers and firewalls and networking capabilities, to set up [China's] initial censorship regime, which is developing into what we see now."

For its part, Google told Spark via email that work on Project Dragonfly is only in its preliminary phase.

"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," said a spokesperson for Google.

"But our work on search has been exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China."

Communist government, capitalist economy, booming tech market

As it stands, China's restrictions on the internet — including a requirement that the CCP have access to data that flows in and out of the country — have led western tech behemoths including Facebook and Amazon to maintain relatively limited operations across China.

Despite the government's strict online monitoring and socialist politics, University of British Columbia School of Public Policy and Global Affairs professor Paul Evans explained that China's tech sector is "innovative and so often cutting edge."

"I think that's the big puzzle," said Evans, in a phone interview with Spark.

"The assumption that authoritarian systems and state-driven systems like China … can't innovate, that idea which we've held for a long time as a kind of article of faith, it doesn't hold in the China case."

An image of the Chinese search engine Baidu, on an Android smartphone. Baidu is China's most-visited website and the fourth most-visited website in the world. (Sameer Chhabra/CBC)

Google-alternative Baidu is currently the most-popular website on the Chinese internet and the fourth most-popular website on the global internet, according to Amazon Alexa web traffic statistics.

Taobao — an online shopping website owned by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba — is the eighth-most popular website in the world, beating out Amazon.com which ranked 10th globally.

"In these tech sectors you get fierce capitalist-style competition. And what drives the innovation, what drives the research and development is a fight for market share in China, sometimes for profits, and sometimes for technologies that can link them into international markets," said Evans.

He also said he believes Google will try to return to China's online search market, but added that the company will face "new hurdles", including growing security concerns about Chinese tech companies — like Huawei — that are affiliated with the CCP.

"I think in a variety of fields, it is going to be more difficult because of fear in the United States about competition from China and the fear that China is going to be out ahead in some of these areas," said Evans.

A slippery slope

While China's growing tech sector prominence has some economists and politicians concerned, Canadians may not be able to dismiss Google's decision to return to China as an exclusively American or Chinese problem.

"It's a very slippery slope," said Brenda McPhail, director of the Canadian Civil Liberty Association's (CCLA) Privacy, Technology & Surveillance Project, in a phone call with Spark.

"If Google is willing to work with the Government of China to implement a system that facilitates ongoing surveillance of its citizens, there's absolutely no reason to think that they wouldn't — they or another search engine or another kind of company — wouldn't be willing to work with the Canadian government to do the same for us."

McPhail added that research out of the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab indicates that Canadian tech companies — like Waterloo, Ont.-based Netsweeper — have worked with "repressive governments" to enable online censorship and surveillance.

"So complacency in the face of 'Oh, these things happen somewhere else,' is really false comfort," said McPhail.

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