Wednesday, 10 October 2018 10:05

Leaked Google memo contradicts public statement on China search plan

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Leaked Google memo contradicts public statement on China search plan Pixabay

A leaked transcript of an address to his staff by Google's search engine chief Ben Gomes on 18 July — about the company's plan to build a censored search engine for China — contradicts the few public comments that Google has made about the plan ever since it came to light.

The Intercept — which broke the China search plan story on on 1 August — quoted Gomes as saying in the address: "Many of you have started working on this a while back. It’s not been easy working on a project with no obvious outcome. Thank you for that. In doing so you have taken on something extremely important to the company – our basic mission of serving all of the world’s users.

"Along the way, I think there are many benefits that come to us that are auxiliary, not just from the direct work, but from all of the auxiliary things of working in China."

Google has avoided public comment about the plan — codenamed Dragonfly — when asked. When Gomes was confronted by a BBC reporter about the plan during celebrations to mark Google's 20th anniversary. he said: "Right now, all we’ve done is some exploration but since we don’t have any plans to launch something, there’s nothing much I can say about it.”

But in the address to staff, Gomes said he hoped the search engine was completed in six to nine months.

"And so the opportunity there is — all of you will know this, but — it’s clearly the biggest opportunity to serve more people that we have. And if you take our mission seriously, that’s where our key focus should be," he said, according to the transcript.

"That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. Many of these things are not easy, and you all know this now from personal experience. Also given the political climate. The future is very unpredictable. Six to nine months [to launch]."

Reporter Ryan Gallagher of The Intercept wrote that he had contacted Gomes twice on his mobile for comment, but the Google search chief claimed he had a bad line and cut the call. “I can’t hear anything that you are saying, I can just hear that you are talking,” he said, before hanging up.

Last week, US Vice-President Mike Pence called on Google to drop the plan to return to China.

The Dragonfly project is said to have started after Google chief executive Sundar Pichai held discussions with Wang Huning, a senior figure in the Chinese Communist Party, in December 2017. Work was begun during the Western spring of 2017 and was fast-tracked after the Pichai-Huning meeting.

After 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.

Programmers created a customised Android search app with different versions known as Maotai and Longfei and these had been demonstrated to Chinese government authorities.

Since The Intercept's first report, Google has made no public statement about the project, though it has been asked for a statement on more than a dozen occasions.

The final version of the app is expected to be launched in the next six to nine months, provided approval is granted by Beijing.

Google had a censored search engine operating in China from 2006 to 2010, but quit the country after its servers were hacked.

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Sam Varghese

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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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