When Google abandoned the Chinese web search market in 2010 it cast itself as a principled objector to censorship and surveillance.

Legal chief David Drummond, who remains a senior executive today, said that the blocking of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube "led us to conclude that we could no longer continue censoring our results".

Eight years later, China's stance has not changed, but it appears Google is more flexible.

Major Western websites are still blocked, yet the company is planning to set up shop behind the Great Firewall once again.


Documents leaked to a technology website have uncovered the secret development by Google of a censored version of its search engine, in partnership with Beijing.

The BBC and Wikipedia have been lined up for censorship, The Intercept revealed.Codenamed "Dragonfly", the plans mark a significant shift in policy by Google as it watches the rapid growth of China's digital economy.

After The Intercept first reported on the project on Wednesday, Google came under heavy criticism from human rights groups.

"It will be a dark day for internet freedom if Google has acquiesced to China's extreme censorship rules to gain market access," said Patrick Poon, China researcher at Amnesty International.

Google's original decision to shut down its Chinese search engine followed increasing censorship and hacking attacks linked to the nation's government.

The decision to secretly work on a new version of Google's search engine in China isn't only a controversial move to human rights observers, but will prove divisive for many of the company's employees.

In 2000, Google launched support for the Chinese language on its search service, and it followed that with the launch of a tailor-made search engine for Chinese users in 2006.

The original search engine in China censored results to only display items that the government was comfortable with.


Google.cn hid results about censored subjects including the Tiananmen Square massacre, with small notices alerting people to the fact that some results had been removed.

At the time, the company said that it chose to comply with the censorship because "we firmly believe, with our culture of innovation, Google can make meaningful and positive contributions to the already impressive pace of development in China."

However, Google's optimistic tone didn't last long. The Chinese search engine project came to an end in 2010 after a series of hacking attacks linked to the Chinese government.

Google shut its Chinese search engine and redirected residents of mainland China to its Hong Kong service, which did not censor results.

China eventually shut down the loophole, but Google's message to it was clear: we're no longer going to allow our results to be censored.

And for years, that message remained. Google refused to run a Chinese search engine, but kept offices in the country that it filled with hundreds of staff members working on research and development.

But remarks from Sundar Pichai, its chief executive, have eased relations between his company and China.

"There are many small and medium-sized businesses in China who take advantage of Google to get their products to many other countries outside of China," Pichai recently said.

The comments came on the same trip to China that he reportedly met in secret with foreign policy adviser Wang Huning.

The impending launch of Google's censored search engine app in China will see the company offering its core search product in the country, just as it did in 2006.

Google intentionally kept its Chinese search engine project limited to just several hundred employees, likely as an attempt to stop any leaks from the initiative.

However, that's exactly what happened when news of the project was leaked to The Intercept.

Leaking documents to the press is a particularly dangerous decision to take inside one of Silicon Valley's technology companies, as businesses including Google retain teams of internal investigators to clamp down on them.

A project to develop artificial intelligence for the Pentagon's fleet of military drones was cancelled earlier this year after thousands of Google employees complained about the company working on military technology.

Google eventually bowed to internal pressure from its employees and ended its participation in the Pentagon programme.

It remains to be seen whether the company's plan to relaunch a censored search engine in China will cause a similar reaction from employees.

- This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph and was reproduced with their permission.