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Business trends

Google plans return to China with censored search engine

Reported project would mark major shift after 8-year absence

Google entered China in 2000 and left in 2010. Its main search engine as well as its YouTube platform is blocked there.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Google is reportedly creating a censored version of its search engine for China, reversing course after exiting the country eight years ago in protest against its restrictions on information.

The project, dubbed Dragonfly, has been in production since 2017, according to online newssite The Intercept. It is being built as an Android app that will reportedly "blacklist sensitive queries" such as religion, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and information about Chinese leadership. Foreign sites such as Wikipedia and the Wall Street Journal will also be subject to editing.

A Google spokesperson told Nikkei: “We don’t comment on speculation about future plans.”

Since the California-based internet company first entered the country in 2000, Google's relationship with China has been complicated. Its main search engine, as well as its YouTube platform, have been blocked by the mainland since it moved its operations to Hong Kong in 2010. Google made the decision to leave after reporting intellectual property theft in the country.

In a statement at the time, Google Senior Vice President David Drummond said: "These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered combined with attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web -- have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results." 

Despite this, Google never quit on China. It has even been making larger overtures to return to the Chinese market of late. The company recently announced an investment of $550 million in online Chinese retailer JD.com. This adds to its portfolio of Chinese investments that already includes companies such as the e-sports site Chushou and the artificial intelligence company Mobvoi. It has also released a Chinese-language version of its translation app as well as file storage services on China's popular WeChat app.

The company's expected re-entry will see it butt heads with Baidu, the dominant player in China's internet industry with almost 70% of the market, according to StatCounter Global Stats.

Reports of Google's overtures toward China will likely spark protests from many humanitarian groups critical of the country's record on human rights such as freedom of expression. In 2016, the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders ranked China 176 out of 180 countries in its worldwide index of press freedom.

The government has been known to impose strict media controls though monitoring systems and firewalls, shuttering publications or websites, and jailing dissident journalists and bloggers.

Camilla Siazon contributed to this report.

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