Monday, 13 August 2018 09:55

Ex-Google official slams 'stupid' plan for censored search engine

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Ex-Google official slams 'stupid' plan for censored search engine Pixabay

Google's plan to launch a censored version of its Web search engine as an Android app in China has been criticised by the company's former head of free expression issues in Asia and the Pacific, who said the "stupid move" that would go against human rights principles.

Lokman Tsui, who held the post from 2011 to 2014, told  The Intercept: "This is just a really bad idea, a stupid, stupid move. I feel compelled to speak out and say that this is not right.”

Tsui, who is now an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Hong, was reacting after having seen confidential plans developed by Google to launch the censored search engine in China and reported by The Intercept on 1 August.

Google had a search presence in China between 2006 and 2010, but the censored search engine was subject to intense criticism in the US over its falling in line with Chinese Government policies.

This search service was stopped in March 2010, with Google saying that the reasons for its pulling out were China's bid to limit free speech, block websites, and break into Google's computer systems.

The website said work on the project, given the codename Dragonfly, had been underway at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, and its offices in New York, San Francisco, Sunnyvale, Santa Barbara, Boston, Washington DC, Shanghai, Beijing, and Tokyo.

The Intercept said its report was based on internal Google documents and "people familiar with the plans". The project was apparently kicked off after a meeting between Google chief executive Sundar Pichai and Wang Huning, a senior figure in the Chinese Communist Party, last December. Work on the search app was begun during the Western spring of 2017 and had been fast-tracked after the Pichai-Huning meeting.

Following the meeting with Huning, Google decided to open an artificial intelligence research centre in Beijing. In May 2018, a Google file management app was released for Chinese Internet users. And in July, Google released a “Guess The Sketch” game on WeChat, the main Chinese messaging and social media platform.

Tsui said: “In these past few years things have been deteriorating so badly in China – you cannot be there without compromising yourself,” adding that if Google launched a censored search engine it “would be a moral victory for Beijing".

“Beijing has nothing to lose. So if Google wants to go back, it would be under the terms and conditions that Beijing would lay out for them. I can’t see how Google would be able to negotiate any kind of a deal that would be positive. I can’t see a way to operate Google search in China without violating widely held international human rights standards.”

Google staffers have been reported to be upset about the project, known as Dragonfly. The customised app, with different versions known as Maotai and Longfei, has been demonstrated to Chinese Government authorities.

Six US politicians from both sides of the aisle have sent a letter to Google chief executive Sundar Pichai, seeking an explanation for the company's move to create and deploy the app.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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