Only a few of the search behemoth's 88,000 workers were briefed on the project before The Intercept reported on 1 August that Google had plans to launch a censored mobile search app for the Chinese market, with no access to sites about human rights, democracy, religion or peaceful protest.
The customised Android search app, with different versions known as Maotai and Longfei, was said to have been demonstrated to Chinese Government authorities.
In a related development, six US senators from both parties were reported to have sent a letter to Google chief executive Sundar Pichai, demanding an explanation over the company's move.
One source inside Google, who witnessed the backlash from employees after news of the plan was reported, told The Intercept: “Everyone’s access to documents got turned off, and is being turned on [on a] document-by-document basis.
“There’s been total radio silence from leadership, which is making a lot of people upset and scared. … Our internal meme site and Google Plus are full of talk, and people are a.n.g.r.y.”
One staff member was reported to have posted a link to the story on an employee message board forum, with a note stating that he/she and two others on his/her team had been asked to work on the Chinese project, which had the codename Dragonfly.
This staffer was reported to have asked to be removed from the project, while another member of the team resigned from the company, with concerns over the project being the main reason.
Work on the project is said to be progressing 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 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 Intercept's report, other news organisations like Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Financial Times, Agence France-Presse, Vice News, and Bloomberg have all run their own versions of the story. with their own sources.
Bloomberg said some Google staffers had argued for the project, saying that boycotting China would not bring change.
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.
The service was shut down 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.
Google's move to return to China does not come as a total surprise because American technology companies are all looking to China as it represents the lone remaining, sizeable market to conquer. According to the latest statistics, China has 772 million net users in the country out of a population of 1.4 billion.
As iTWire reported, smartphone users in China total 717 million or 51% of the population, compared to the 226 million or 69% in the US. Mobile Internet users number 753 million in China and 237 million in the US.
The six US politicians said in their letter to Pichai that the news about Dragonfly was "deeply troubling" and risked "making Google complicit in human rights abuses related to China’s rigorous censorship regime".
They queried the company as to what blacklist of censored searches and website it would be using for the search app and why the company had reversed its policy on China.
"“It is a coup for the Chinese government and Communist Party to force Google—the biggest search engine in the world—to comply with their onerous censorship requirements, and sets a worrying precedent for other companies seeking to do business in China without compromising their core values," they wrote.