Google has finally confirmed that its hugely controversial Project Dragonfly has been shut down once and for all.
Project Dragonfly was the name given to Google’s planned re-entry into the market in Communist China and would have required the company to comply with the authoritarian Communist regimes stringent online censorship and surveillance laws.
Most western internet companies have so far refused to do this and as a result, they are blocked in China. It is this refusal to play ball with the Communist regime which has forced most Chinese internet users to turn to VPNs if they want to access those websites most of us take for granted.
Communist China has tried to ban VPNs, but plenty still work behind the Great Firewall, the name given to China’s gargantuan censorship apparatus. Connecting to the likes of ExpressVPN is the only way that Chinese people can access Google and many other western sites.
The Project Dragonfly controversy
Leaks from inside Google revealed the existence of Project Dragonfly last year and the news was met with widespread condemnation from politicians, online rights activists, and tech experts.
Pressure on Google has grown from all sides since the leaks went public. Even their own staff protested plans to play ball with the Chinese Communist regime.
A letter sent to Google’s senior management was signed by no fewer than 1,400 Google employees and persistent leaks from inside the company told of widespread discontent at the plans.
For their part, Google initially tried to bury their head in the sand, refusing to comment on Project Dragonfly beyond initially saying that they have a company policy to never comment on leaks.
Most observers noted that since Google had withdrawn from the Chinese market back in 2010, they had watched on enviously as Chinese tech companies have grown into some of the biggest in the world off the back of their state-supported monopoly of the enormous and lucrative Chinese market.
The suspicion was that Google wanted its piece of the pie. And when senior executives were forced to comment on Project Dragonfly, they didn’t exactly put these suspicions to bed.
In December of last year, Google CEO Sundar Pichai told the US’s House Judiciary Committee that Google had no plans to launch a censored search engine in Communist China “right now”.
Off the back of those comments, Google claimed that the project had been put on ice but many people, including some within the company, suspected that work was continuing in secret.
Project terminated… for now
Whether that was true or not at the time is still not clear but Google has now surely put the rumours to bed once and for all.
According to Buzzfeed, Google’s vice president of public policy, Karan Bhatia became the first senior executive to confirm in public that Project Dragonfly was no more.
Addressing a Senate Judiciary Committee session, he said in no uncertain terms, “We have terminated Project Dragonfly,”
When Google was approached by media outlets to confirm the meaning of this comment, they issued a statement which read, “We have no plans to launch Search in China and there is no work being undertaken on such a project.”
While these comments are pretty clear, there is also clearly plenty of wriggle-room for Google in the future. The statement is very much in the present tense and the stress is quite clearly on the here and now. It does not rule out the prospect of Google resurrecting Project Dragon in the future.
Indeed, China is clearly still a market that Google has a great deal of interest in. There is still a huge Google operation in Beijing and across China. A quick search on LinkedIn reveals that there are currently no fewer than 249 job vacancies with Google in China.
This seems odd for a company that is blocked in China and claims to have no plans to enter the market.
Perhaps they are preparing for the fall of the Communist regime and the opening up of China to the world. But that feels a long way off at the moment. Certainly hiring so many people there in view of that could be described as ‘premature’.
In the current climate though, it seems unlikely that Google will dare to try and go into China again. Privacy is the order of the day in the tech world at the moment with even the likes of Facebook trying to convince its users that it is privacy-friendly these days.
Privacy is not compatible with compliance with the most intrusive online surveillance and censorship regime in the world and Google knows it.
Equally, with the US ramping up pressure on the Communist government in China though its ‘trade war’, there is also growing domestic pressure on domestic businesses that work too closely with the regime.
Indeed, Google itself is facing calls for an inquiry into its links with the regime, something that President Donald Trump himself has said he will look into.
So, there is little doubt that Project Dragonfly has been ‘terminated’ for now. But, how long this will be the case is anyone’s guess.