Google’s Dragonfly Project Halted in China

Learn about the details of Google's Dragonfly Project and what its cancellation may mean for China and Asia’s digital market.

China is the world’s largest and most lucrative internet market. It’s no surprise then that Google wants to break back into it after withdrawing google.cn in 2010, citing security and censorship concerns.

Since then, China internet usage has skyrocketed with 802 million Chinese people active online (57.7% of the entire population). Compare that to the US, which has a mere 300 million active internet users.

(Fun fact: 778 million of those 802 million Chinese people are mobile internet users—a whopping 98% of the country’s total user base, illustrating how effective China is at facilitating network coverage and mobile technology.)

This exponential growth proved too enticing for Google, which initiated Project Dragonfly, a censored search engine shrouded in secrecy that it was developing to launch in China. Keyword: was. Because amid internal conflict and protest from the company’s privacy team, Dragonfly has “effectively ended,” according to two sources familiar with the project, as reported in The Intercept.

Here, we dish on the details of Dragonfly and what it may mean for China and Asia’s digital market.

What is Project Dragonfly?

Dragonfly is a censored search engine that Google was developing since spring 2017 to launch in China by spring 2019. Dragonfly would block the type of content from search results that the Chinese government deems sensitive.

How did Dragonfly get data?

265.com is a Chinese-language web directory service owned by Google. Unlike other Google services, 265.com is not blocked in China. 265.com provides news updates, links to information, and advertisements for travel and tourism, according to The Intercept. It also allows people to search for content, such as websites, images, and videos. These search queries, however, are redirected to Baidu, China’s dominant search engine, which censors results.

Google used data from 265.com to clandestinely research Chinese user behavior. The Intercept explains:

“After gathering sample queries from 265.com, Google engineers used them to review lists of websites that people would see in response to their searches. The Dragonfly developers used a tool they called “BeaconTower” to check whether the websites were blocked by the Great Firewall. They compiled a list of thousands of websites that were banned, and then integrated this information into a censored version of Google’s search engine so that it would automatically manipulate Google results, purging links to websites prohibited in China from the first page shown to users.”

So, what’s the big deal?

Dragonfly was shrouded in secrecy and essentially went against Google’s mandate:

  • Google’s privacy team was not made aware of the use of 265.com—a major breach of company protocol, because privacy staff are tasked with monitoring search query analysis and have the serious responsibility of safeguarding user rights.
  • The public and many Google staff, including privacy employees and engineers, only learned of Dragonfly’s existence when The Intercept first reported on it in August 2018 based on leaked confidential documents detailing the controversial project.
  • Google’s mandate is to provide ease of access to accurate information. Of course, developing a censored search engine goes against this mandate.

After the privacy team confronted executives with their concerns, engineers were directed to cease the use of 265.com. This effectively killed the project, because 265.com was Dragonfly’s only data source. Without it, accuracy is compromised.

What does this mean for Asia?

The Great Firewall refers to China’s proclivity for content censorship. Google potentially bending to censorship has implications for its integrity. However, Google’s ambitions in China are not over—just stalled, according to BBC: This may be a bump in the road, but the company will almost certainly find a new approach to serving the Chinese market.

While we digital marketers are left to just wait and see—and optimize our sites for Baidu in the meantime.

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