Google on Monday confirmed a secretive project that has been fueling an employee-led backlash for weeks at the company: an effort to build a version of its search engine that complies with China's online censorship regime.
The project, code-named Dragonfly, not only is real but also is already performing to the satisfaction of top Google executives. And it could pave the way for Google to reenter China's online search market after nearly a decade.
It’s a reversal from Google’s stance in 2010, when the company shut down its search engine operation in China, saying it was making good on a promise not to self-censor the site as demanded by Chinese officials.
"If Google were to operate in China, what would it look like? What queries will we be able to serve?" Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said during an event hosted by Wired on Monday night. "It turns out we'll be able to serve well over 99% of the queries."
The announcement could prompt more questions from U.S. policymakers, some of whom have accused Google of being evasive about Project Dragonfly.
Meanwhile, Google and its peers in the tech industry are facing intense scrutiny over their approaches to user privacy and data, with some federal lawmakers proposing legislation that could impose new restrictions on tech companies' handling of customer information.
Like many other companies, Google — owned by Alphabet Inc. — is eyeing China as a massive market opportunity. China, which has an estimated population of 1.4 billion, is already heavily dependent on Google's Android operating system; in 2013, 9 out of 10 smartphones in China were running Android. But Google's position in mobile could eventually erode: Chinese competitors have sought to develop alternatives to Android. Gaining broader access to Chinese audiences could give Google more opportunities to serve online advertising and sell mobile apps.
Despite China's long-standing practice of blocking search queries for politically sensitive material — such as the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests of 1989 — Google believes it could still do some good for Chinese internet users looking for other information. Google could help improve search queries for cancer treatments, Pichai said Monday, by linking users to legitimate treatments and steering them away from scams.
But the initiative has sparked an internal debate over Google's corporate values that's spilled into public view. A leaked letter signed by more than 1,400 employees cited Dragonfly as an alarming departure from Google's normal transparency.
"Currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment," the letter read.
Google's return to China is not guaranteed, Pichai said Monday.