Google's China search project gets stung by confrontation over data

The dispute has "effectively ended" the Dragonfly project, according to a report by The Intercept.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
2 min read

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said last week the company has "no plans" to launch a search product in China.

James Martin/CNET

Google's Dragonfly project, an effort to bring a censored search engine to China, reportedly took a major blow after an internal confrontation over data privacy , according to a report Monday by The Intercept.

The privacy team at Google confronted executives over data gathered from 265.com, a Beijing-based website that Google bought in 2008, according to the report. The data allowed engineers to see what search queries from mainland China might look like, so Google could improve the accuracy of the search results it might provide. The data allowed the company to build a prototype search product, The Intercept said.

But access to the data was shut down after Google's privacy team complained that it was left in the dark about the 265.com data.

Shutting down access to the data has "effectively ended" the Dragonfly project, according to The Intercept.

Watch this: We break down Google CEO Sundar Pichai's big DC showdown (The 3:59, Ep. 502)

Dragonfly has been one of Google's most controversial projects, and it comes eight years after Google exited the search engine market in China. At the time of its departure, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union, cited the "totalitarianism" of Chinese policies as a contributing factor.

Rumors of the project alone have spurred protests and resignations. Last month, hundreds of Google employees, mostly software engineers, joined with Amnesty International to publish a letter demanding that CEO Sundar Pichai cancel the project. Google has said little about Dragonfly, but the project would reportedly bring a censored search engine to China and make it possible to connect users' search queries to their phone numbers, enabling the Chinese government to more easily track searches.

Asked for comment on Monday about The Intercept report, a Google spokeswoman pointed to remarks Pichai made last week when asked about Dragonfly during a congressional hearing. He repeatedly said the company has "no plans" to launch a search engine in China. But when pressed, he acknowledged that the project had "over a hundred" people working on it at one point. Despite the headcount, Pichai called it a "limited effort" within the company.

In an interview with The Washington Post after the hearing, Pichai offered even more about what the project could look like. "Can we explore and serve users in China, in areas like education and health care?" he said. "We may not end up doing search. We're trying to understand a market."

First published Dec. 17 at 11:17 a.m. PT.
Update, 11:54 a.m. PT.:  Adds response from Google. 

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