Google's rumored return to China triggers pointed questions from Senate

Both sides of Congress want to know why Google might launch a new censored search engine.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
2 min read
Google China

Google may be launching Search for China.


Is Google's Dragonfly real, and does it mean the Silicon Valley company is cooperating with China to censor citizens' searches? That's what a bipartisan group of US senators wants to know. 

Sens. Mark Warner, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, Ron Wyden, Cory Gardner and Robert Menendez sent a letter Friday to Google CEO Sundar Pichai asking those questions, after reports Wednesday that Google would be returning to China with a new search engine designed to blacklist search terms and websites referencing human rights, democracy, religion and peaceful protest. 

The documents, seen by The Intercept, reportedly reference a project code-named Dragonfly that has been underway since spring 2017.  Google  previously opted out of the country in 2010.

Google programmers and engineers have reportedly made an Android app that's already been shown to the Chinese government. A final version could be rolled out in six to nine months, depending on when it's approved by Chinese officials, The Intercept reported.

But state-owned China Securities Daily reported on Thursdayfirst noticed by Reuters, that Google's return to China isn't true. Citing unnamed analysts and information from "relevant departments", it suggests Google is unlikely to return to China in the short term and might be trying to trigger the market after bad PR from its EU $5 billion penalty over antitrust violations related to the Android mobile operating system.

The company withdrew from providing search tools to the Chinese market in 2010, and its international search engine is blocked by the country's so-called "Great Firewall." The version of the search engine Google is reportedly building would comply with China's censorship laws, even though the country is cracking down harder than ever to limit free speech online.

"We provide a number of mobile apps in China, such as Google Translate and Files Go, help Chinese developers, and have made significant investments in Chinese companies like JD.com," a Google spokeswoman said in a statement. "But we don't comment on speculation about future plans."

You can read the letter from US senators to Google CEO Sundar Pichai below:

First published Aug. 1, 8:25 a.m. PT.
Updates, 12:45 p.m.: Adds details; 10:35 p.m.: Includes reports saying Google's return to China isn't true; Aug. 3 at 4:13 p.m.: Adds that a bipartisan group of US senators is asking Google's CEO to answer questions about the company's intentions in China.