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How Google took on China—and lost

  • Matt Sheehan archive page

Conceptual illustration containing a pagoda and dragonfly and technological elements

Google's first foray into Chinese markets was a short-lived experiment. Google China’s search engine was launched in 2006 and abruptly pulled from mainland China in 2010 amid a major hack of the company and disputes over censorship of search results. But in August 2018, the investigative journalism website The Intercept reported that the company was working on a secret prototype of a new, censored Chinese search engine, called Project Dragonfly. Amid a furor from human rights activists and some Google employees, US Vice President Mike Pence called on the company to kill Dragonfly, saying it would “strengthen Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers.” In mid-December, The Intercept reported that Google had suspended its development efforts in response to complaints from the company's own privacy team, who learned about the project from the investigative website's reporting.

Observers talk as if the decision about whether to reenter the world’s largest market is up to Google: will it compromise its principles and censor search the way China wants? This misses the point—this time the Chinese government will make the decisions.

Google and China have been locked in an awkward tango for over a decade, constantly grappling over who leads and who follows. Charting that dance over the years reveals major shifts in China’s relationship with Google and all of Silicon Valley. To understand whether China will let Google back in, we must understand how Google and China got here, what incentives each party faces—and how artificial intelligence might have both of them dancing to a new tune.  

The right thing to do?

When launched in 2006, the company had gone public only two years before. The iPhone did not yet exist, nor did any Android-based smartphones. Google was about one-fifth as large and valuable as it is today, and the Chinese internet was seen as a backwater of knockoff products that were devoid of innovation. Google’s Chinese search engine represented the most controversial experiment to date in internet diplomacy. To get into China, the young company that had defined itself by the motto “Don’t be evil” agreed to censor the search results shown to Chinese users.

Central to that decision by Google leadership was a bet that by serving the market—even with a censored product—they could broaden the horizons of Chinese users and nudge the Chinese internet toward greater openness.

At first, Google appeared to be succeeding in that mission. When Chinese users searched for censored content on, they saw a notice that some results had been removed. That public acknowledgment of internet censorship was a first among Chinese search engines, and it wasn’t popular with regulators.

“The Chinese government hated it,” says Kaiser Kuo, former head of international communications for Baidu. “They compared it to coming to my house for dinner and saying, ‘I will agree to eat the food, but I don’t like it.’” Google hadn’t asked the government for permission before implementing the notice but wasn’t ordered to remove it. The company’s global prestige and technical expertise gave it leverage. China might be a promising market, but it was still dependent on Silicon Valley for talent, funding, and knowledge. Google wanted to be in China, the thinking went, but China needed Google.

Google’s censorship disclaimer was a modest victory for transparency. Baidu and other search engines in China soon followed suit. Over the next four years, Google China fought skirmishes on multiple fronts: with the Chinese government over content restrictions, with local competitor Baidu over the quality of search results, and with its own corporate leadership in Mountain View, California, over the freedom to adapt global products for local needs. By late 2009, Google controlled more than a third of the Chinese search market—a respectable share but well below Baidu’s 58%, according to data from Analysys International.

The Chinese government cracked down on political speech in 2013, imprisoning critics and instituting new laws against “spreading rumors” online—a one-two punch that suffocated political discussion.

In the end, though, it wasn’t censorship or competition that drove Google out of China. It was a far-­reaching hacking attack known as Operation Aurora that targeted everything from Google’s intellectual property to the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. The attack, which Google said came from within China, pushed company leadership over the edge. On January 12, 2010, Google announced, “We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.”

The sudden reversal blindsided Chinese officials. Most Chinese internet users could go about their online lives with few reminders of government controls, but the Google announcement shoved cyberattacks and censorship into the spotlight. The world’s top internet company and the government of the most populous country were now engaged in a public showdown.

“[Chinese officials] were really on their back foot, and it looked like they might cave and make some kind of accommodation,” says Kuo. “All of these people who apparently did not give much of a damn about internet censorship before were really angry about it. The whole internet was abuzz with this.”

But officials refused to cede ground. “China welcomes international Internet businesses developing services in China according to the law,” a foreign ministry spokeswoman told Reuters at the time. Government control of information was—and remains—central to Chinese Communist Party doctrine. Six months earlier, following riots in Xinjiang, the government had blocked Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube in one fell swoop, fortifying the “Great Firewall.” The government was making a bet: China and its technology sector did not need Google search to succeed.

Google soon abandoned, retreating to a Hong Kong–based search engine. In response, the Chinese government decided not to fully block services like Gmail and Google Maps, and for a while it allowed sporadic access from the mainland to the Hong Kong search engine too. The two sides settled into a tense stalemate.

Google’s leaders seemed prepared to wait it out. “I personally believe that you cannot build a modern knowledge society with that kind of [censorship],” Google chairman Eric Schmidt told Foreign Policy in 2012. “In a long enough time period, do I think that this kind of regime approach will end? I think absolutely.”

Conceptual illustration depicting innovators returning to China

Role reversal

But instead of languishing under censorship, the Chinese internet sector boomed. Between 2010 and 2015, there was an explosion of new products and companies. Xiaomi, a hardware maker now worth over $40 billion, was founded in April 2010. A month earlier Meituan, a Groupon clone that turned into a juggernaut of online-to-offline services, was born; it went public in September 2018 and is now worth about $35 billion. Didi, the ride-­hailing company that drove Uber out of China and is now challenging it in international markets, was founded in 2012. Chinese engineers and entrepreneurs returning from Silicon Valley, including many former Googlers, were crucial to this dynamism, bringing world-class technical and entrepreneurial chops to markets insulated from their former employers in the US. Older companies like Baidu and Alibaba also grew quickly during these years.

In 2017, the government launched a new crackdown on virtual private networks, software widely used for circumventing censorship.

The Chinese government played contradictory roles in this process. It cracked down on political speech in 2013, imprisoning critics and instituting new laws against “spreading rumors” online—a one-two punch that largely suffocated political discussion on China’s once-raucous social-media sites. Yet it also launched a high-profile campaign promoting “mass entrepreneurship and mass innovation.” Government-funded startup incubators spread across the country, as did government-backed venture capital.

That confluence of forces brought results. Services like Meituan flourished. So did Tencent’s super-app WeChat, a “digital Swiss Army knife” that combines aspects of WhatsApp, PayPal, and dozens of other apps from the West. E-commerce behemoth Alibaba went public on the New York Stock Exchange in September 2014, selling $25 billion worth of shares—still the most valuable IPO in history.

Amidst this home-grown success, the Chinese government decided to break the uneasy truce with Google. In mid-2014, a few months before Alibaba’s IPO, the government blocked virtually all Google services in China, including many considered essential for international business, such as Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Scholar. “It took us by surprise, as we felt Google was one of those valuable properties [that they couldn’t afford to block],” says Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous cofounder of GreatFire, an organization that tracks and circumvents Chinese internet controls.

The Chinese government had pulled off an unexpected hat trick: locking out the Silicon Valley giants, censoring political speech, and still cultivating an internet that was controllable, profitable, and innovative.

AlphaGo your own way

With the Chinese internet blossoming and the government not backing down, Google began to search for ways back into China. It tried out less politically sensitive products—an “everything but search” strategy—but with mixed success.

In 2015, rumors swirled that Google was close to bringing its Google Play app store back to China, pending Chinese government approval—but the promised app store never materialized. This was followed by a partnership with Mobvoi, a Chinese smart-watch maker founded by an ex-Google employee, to make voice search available on Android Wear in China. Google later invested in Mobvoi, its first direct investment in China since 2010.

In March 2017, there were reports that authorities would allow Google Scholar back in. They didn’t. Reports that Google would launch a mobile-app store in China together with NetEase, a Chinese company, similarly came to naught, though Google was permitted to relaunch its smartphone translation app.

Then, in May 2017, a showdown between AlphaGo, the Go-playing program built by Google sibling company DeepMind, and Ke Jie, the world’s number one human player, was allowed to take place in Wuzhen, a tourist town outside Shanghai. AlphaGo won all three games in the match—a result that the government had perhaps foreseen. Live-streaming of the match within China was forbidden, and not only in the form of video: as the Guardian put it, “outlets were banned from covering the match live in any way, including text commentary, social media, or push notifications.” DeepMind broadcast the match outside China.

During this same period, Chinese censors quietly rolled back some of the openings that Google’s earlier China operations had catalyzed. In 2016, Chinese search engines began removing the censorship disclaimers that Google had pioneered. In 2017, the government launched a new crackdown on virtual private networks (VPNs), software widely used for circumventing censorship. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities began rolling out extensive AI-powered surveillance technologies across the country, constructing what some called a “21st-century police state” in the western region of Xinjiang, home to the country’s Muslim Uighurs.

Despite the retrograde climate, Google capped off 2017 with a major announcement: the launch of a new AI research center in Beijing. Google Cloud’s Chinese-born chief scientist, Fei-Fei Li, would oversee the new center. “The science of AI has no borders,” she wrote in the announcement of the center’s launch. “Neither do its benefits.” (Li left Google in September 2018 and returned to Stanford University, where she is a professor.)

If the research center was a public symbol of Google’s continued efforts to gain a foothold in China, Google was also working quietly to accommodate Chinese government restrictions. Dragonfly, the censored- search-engine prototype, which has been demonstrated for Chinese officials, blacklists key search terms; it would be operated as part of a joint venture with an unnamed Chinese partner. The documents The Intercept obtained said the app would still tell users when results had been censored.

Other aspects of the project are particularly troubling. Prototypes of the app reportedly link users’ searches to their mobile-phone number, opening the door to greater surveillance and possibly arrest if people search for banned material.

In a speech to the Dragonfly team, later leaked by The Intercept, Ben Gomes, Google’s head of search, explained Google’s aims. China, he said, is “arguably the most interesting market in the world today.” Google was not just trying to make money by doing business in China, he said, but was after something bigger. “We need to understand what is happening there in order to inspire us,” he said. “China will teach us things that we don’t know.”

In early December, Google CEO Sundar Pichai told a Congressional committee that "right now we have no plans to launch in China," though he would not rule out future plans. The question is, if Google wants to come back to China, does China want to let it in?

China’s calculus

To answer that question, try thinking like an advisor to President Xi Jinping.

Bringing Google search back certainly has upsides. China’s growing number of knowledge workers need access to global news and research, and Baidu is notoriously bad at turning up relevant results from outside China. Google could serve as a valuable partner to Chinese companies looking to expand internationally, as it has demonstrated in a patent-sharing partnership with Tencent and a $550 million investment in e-commerce giant JD. Google’s reentry would also help legitimize the Communist Party’s approach to internet governance, a signal that China is an indispensable market—and an open one—as long as you “play by the rules.”

Google’s exit in 2010 marked a major loss of face for the Chinese government. If leaders give the green light to Project Dragonfly, they run that risk again.

But from the Chinese government’s perspective, these potential upsides are marginal. Chinese citizens who need to access the global internet can still usually do so through VPNs (though it is getting harder). Google doesn’t need to have a business in China to help Chinese internet giants gain business abroad. And the giants of Silicon Valley have already ceased their public criticism of Chinese internet censorship, and instead extol the country’s dynamism and innovation.

By contrast, the political risks of permitting Google to return loom large to Xi and his inner circle. Hostility toward both China and Silicon Valley is high and rising in American political circles. A return to China would put Google in a political pressure cooker. What if that pressure—via antitrust action or new legislation—effectively forced the company to choose between the American and Chinese markets? Google’s sudden exit in 2010 marked a major loss of face for the Chinese government in front of its own citizens. If Chinese leaders give the green light to Project Dragonfly, they run the risk of that happening again.

A savvy advisor would be likely to think that these risks—to Xi, to the Communist Party, and to his or her own career—outweighed the modest gains to be had from allowing Google’s return. The Chinese government oversees a technology sector that is profitable, innovative, and driven largely by domestic companies—an enviable position to be in. Allowing Google back in would only diminish its leverage. Better, then, to stick with the status quo: dangle the prospect of full market access while throwing Silicon Valley companies an occasional bone by permitting peripheral services like translation.

Google’s gamble

Google does have one factor in its favor. If it first entered China during the days of desktop internet, and departed at the dawn of the mobile internet, it is now trying to reenter in the era of AI. The Chinese government places high hopes on AI as an all-purpose tool for economic activity, military power, and social governance, including surveillance. And Google and its Alphabet sibling DeepMind are the global leaders in corporate AI research.

This is probably why Google has held publicity stunts like the AlphaGo match and an AI-powered “Guess the Sketch” game on WeChat, as well as taking more substantive steps like establishing the Beijing AI lab and promoting Chinese use of TensorFlow, an artificial-intelligence software library developed by the Google Brain team. Taken together, these efforts constitute a sort of artificial-intelligence lobbying strategy designed to sway the Chinese leadership.

This pitch, however, faces problems on at least three battlegrounds: Beijing; Washington, DC; and Mountain View, California.

Chinese leaders have good reason to feel they’re already getting the best of both worlds. They can take advantage of software development tools like TensorFlow and they still have a prestigious Google research lab to train Chinese AI researchers, all without granting Google market access.

In Washington, meanwhile, American security officials are annoyed that Google is actively courting a geopolitical rival while refusing to work with the Pentagon on AI projects because its employees object to having their work used for military ends.

Those employees are the key to the third battleground. They’ve demonstrated the ability to mobilize quickly and effectively, as with the protests against US defense contracts and a walkout last November over how the company has dealt with sexual harassment. In late November more than 600 Googlers signed an open letter demanding that the company drop the Dragonfly project, writing, “We object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable.” Daunting as these challenges sound—and high as the costs of pursuing the Chinese market may be—they haven’t entirely deterred Google’s top brass. Though the development of Dragonfly appears to have, at the very least, paused, the wealth and dynamism that make China so attractive to Google also mean the decision of whether or not to do business there is no longer the company’s to make.

“I know people in Silicon Valley are really smart, and they’re really successful because they can overcome any problem they face,” says Bill Bishop, a digital-media entrepreneur with experience in both markets. “I don’t think they’ve ever faced a problem like the Chinese Communist Party.”

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Why Google Quit China—and Why It’s Heading Back

When American Internet companies do business abroad, they are sometimes forced to do a repressive government’s dirty work.

google china censorship case study

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When Google shut down its Chinese search engine in 2010, it gave up access to an enormous market. There are more than twice as many people on the Internet in China as there are residents in the U.S., and the number of Chinese Internet users is growing at a rate that far surpasses that of any other country. Google has plans to return to China in the near future, but why did it turn away from the country for so long?

Censorship is why. Google effectively shut down its Chinese operations after it discovered a cyberattack from within the country that targeted it and dozens of other companies. And while investigating the attack, Google found that the Gmail accounts of a number of Chinese human-rights activists had been hacked.

Google had set up shop in China four years before the breach, offering a version of its services that conformed to the government’s oppressive censorship policies. At the time, Google officials said they’d decided that the most ethical option was to offer some services—albeit restricted by China’s censors—to the enormous Chinese market, rather than leave millions of Internet users with limited access to information.

But the 2010 attacks prompted the company to reverse course. Instead of complying with government requests to filter its search results, Google directed all of its Chinese traffic to the uncensored Hong Kong version of its search engine, a move that left the company vulnerable to being completely shut down in China. Indeed, Google’s services became inaccessible to most Chinese users within months.

Google’s move to pull the plug in China is an extreme example of the kinds of decisions Internet companies operating abroad are often up against: If they want to do business, they have to abide by local laws, which can include restrictions on speech. And since the United States has some of the most permissive freedom-of-speech laws in the world, American companies must adapt in order to do business even in parts of the world that are culturally very similar to the U.S.

Western European countries, which receive top marks from Freedom House for online openness, are far less tolerant than the U.S. of hateful speech and images. In Germany, where distributing swastikas is considered hate speech and is illegal, regulators recently investigated a complaint that Facebook was not adequately enforcing national hate-speech law. But it’s inconceivable that Facebook would close down its service in Germany just because the government asks for more censorship than the First Amendment would permit.

In countries with more repressive governments, companies routinely receive requests to take down a much wider range of content that violates local laws. In Russia, for example, speaking ill of public officials can lead to costly libel suits; just across the Black Sea, “insulting Turkishness” is punishable by fines and jail time.

Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, says companies should generally submit to governments’ requests for censorship, if it means they can keep delivering their services. But when they take down content from their platform, Rowland says, the company must be transparent.

“If these companies do whatever they’re capable of doing to publicize that their content is being screened, monitored, and sometimes censored by governments, I think there’s a really good argument that maintaining a social-media presence is inherently a liberalizing force,” Rowland said.

To that end, Google , Facebook , and Twitter all publish a detailed annual transparency report, where they show the number and type of content-takedown or user-information requests they received, and the number they complied with, from each country where they operate. The companies also lay out their rationale for dealing with these requests: Facebook, for example, says it checks every incoming request for “legal sufficiency” and “reject[s] or require[s] greater specificity on requests that are overly broad or vague.” But even the most thorough transparency report can be difficult to access in the countries where the reported censorship is taking place.

Rebecca MacKinnon, a prominent Internet-privacy advocate at New America, says companies should start thinking about how they will deal with free-speech issues even before they start doing business in a repressive state. “It’s about anticipating in advance what positions you’re going to be put in, and deciding in advance whether that’s an acceptable position to be in,” MacKinnon said. Many companies undergo a “human-rights impact assessment” before they expand to a new market with potential censorship pitfalls.

The calculus that goes into making decisions about free speech abroad is complicated. But there are few things that companies can do to push back against censorship-happy governments without losing access to an entire country.

Companies can set up stringent review processes for legal takedown requests. A stringent review can make sure governments aren’t taking advantage of Internet companies to censor content outside the bounds of the law, and thorough reporting and transparent policies can spur local activism to change repressive laws.

Twitter is an interesting test case. As with any company, its tolerance for complying with government requests can be gleaned from its actions. Twitter’s transparency report shows a sharp rise in takedown requests in 2015, driven in large part by a high volume of requests from Turkey and Russia; the company continues to operate in both of those countries.

In Iran, however, where Twitter has been blocked for more than five years, Twitter has made changes to accommodate Iranian users that are able to circumvent their government’s Internet filters. The company recently began allowing users with Iranian phone numbers to activate two-factor authentication, a login option which can protect accounts from being hacked. Rowland called Twitter’s actions in Iran the “ethical high-water mark for resisting government attempts to censor access to content.”

(A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment on the company’s legal and business decision-making, and spokespeople for Google and Facebook were not available to comment on this story.)

When deciding how to deal with censorship abroad, companies aren’t going at it alone. The Global Network Initiative, a privacy and digital human-rights organization, provides a roadmap for companies navigating business in repressive legal environments. GNI members represent for-profit companies—including Google and Facebook—investors, and nonprofit and academic organizations.

MacKinnon, who was a founding member of GNI and sits on its board, says the organization provides a space for companies who are up against tough choices to confer with other members, academics, and privacy advocates, in order to make informed decisions. But she says most companies are too preoccupied chasing short-term profits to put too much time and energy into implementing long-term free-speech protections. “GNI has at least put a framework in place that’s preventing things from being much worse than they’d otherwise be,” MacKinnon said.

Companies that do business abroad—even just in Europe—are dealing with an increasing number of government requests for content takedowns every year. Europe’s two-year old “right to be forgotten,” a European Union decision that allows citizens to ask Google to remove links to misleading, inaccurate, or irrelevant information about them, has opened a whole new category of content takedown requests. And growing worry that terrorist groups like the Islamic State are using social platforms to recruit and spread propaganda means that more governments are on the lookout for content that promotes terrorism, which typically violates platforms’ terms of service.

But while terms-of-service violations can result in bans and content takedowns, most Internet companies don’t report them in their transparency reports. This is a problem, says Rowland, because a government that’s particularly active in flagging terms-violating content for removal is essentially engaging in a different form of censorship.

The United Kingdom, for example, has taken special advantage of flagging tools, and at least one counter-terrorism unit in the U.K. government has been granted “super-flagger” status to request YouTube video takedowns, allowing it to flag violations en masse.

One reason some companies don’t report takedowns of content that violates their terms of service is because they can’t tell which requests come from governments. A spokesman for Twitter said governments are required to use the same mechanism for flagging tweets, photos, and accounts as the general public must use. The spokesperson said requests for takedowns based on terms-of-service violations are “very rare.”

Even as requests for takedowns increase every year, companies are engaging more and more with the governments that issue them. Take China: Google is hiring for dozens of positions there as it prepares its reentry, and is working toward an agreement to offer an app store for Android devices that would only include government-approved apps. In Pakistan, Google launched a localized version of YouTube last week that will adhere to local law, in a bid to get the government to lift a ban on the service.

These expansions will allow Google access to a large number of Internet users, delivering them more information, and at the same time bolstering the company’s bottom line. But for the millions of Internet users in China, Pakistan, and other places where censorship is the norm, the tradeoff for getting to use new services remains the same: Easily accessible information comes at the cost of continued government control, filtered through American Internet companies.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to [email protected].

google china censorship case study

google china censorship case study

Google’s censored Chinese search engine: a catalogue of ethical violations?

google china censorship case study

Reader in Computing & Social Responsibility, De Montfort University

Disclosure statement

Catherine Flick receives funding from the European Union Horizon 2020 Framework Programme under grant agreements 710543 and 787991. She is affiliated with the Association of Computing Machinery as a member of its Committee on Professional Ethics and a member of the steering committee of the Code of Ethics update taskforce.

De Montfort University provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK.

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The Great Firewall of China is the largest-scale internet censorship operation in the world. The Chinese state says the firewall is there to promote societal harmony within an increasing population of billions of people. It considers the internet in China as part of its sovereign territory .

Eight years ago, Google withdrew from China , pulling its search and other services out because of country’s limits to freedom of speech. But it is now planning to relaunch a heavily censored version of its services in China, according to a whistleblower who spoke to online news website The Intercept .

This project, named Dragonfly, will encompass a new, heavily censored version of Google’s search services, including mobile apps, that will be run in partnership with a local company in China. Censorship in China includes returning no results for searches that depict Chinese police or military brutality (such as the Tiananmen Square massacre), pro-democracy sites, sites linked with the Dalai Lama, and anything related to Taiwanese or Tibetan independence.

The whistleblower who spoke to The Intercept cited ethical concerns over this project – and rightly so. There are several ethical dilemmas with Google’s move back into China. Should large Western companies such as Google give up ethical values to make money in China? Is it okay to design technology to assist the Chinese government in restricting the human rights of their citizens? Where does “respect for Chinese values” turn into “assistance in oppressing Chinese people through censorship”? Is Google being hypocritical by making money on the freedom of information available in most societies but then selling it out when they go into China?

The largest professional organisation for computing, the Association of Computing Machinery, recently updated its code of ethics , which includes some specific provisions that we can use to think through these issues. Many Google employees are members of the ACM, meaning they have agreed to abide by this code. Some of these employees may be working on Project Dragonfly, so they will need to evaluate their work in terms of the code. An initial analysis using the code (and this complex case requires more than space allows) offers three insights.

First, the primary goal of technology development should be to benefit the public good, “to contribute to society and to human well-being”, “promoting human rights and protecting each individual’s right to autonomy” (principle 1.1). Taking part in censorship at the Chinese state’s behest and censoring the topics mentioned above would appear to be inconsistent with this principle.

Individual freedom is heavily curtailed in China, and this is reflected in the censorship of the internet there. But, despite what the Chinese government argues, promoting social harmony doesn’t require the restriction of freedom or violation of human rights.

google china censorship case study

Second, there are specific provisions within the code against assisting in the oppression of a population within the code. “Computing professionals should take action to avoid creating systems or technologies that disenfranchise or oppress people” (principle 1.4). In developing technology to censor sites related to democracy and Chinese-committed atrocities, Google employees would arguably be violating this as well.

But surely this is a case for respecting “local, regional, national, and international laws and regulations” (principle 2.3)? The code of ethics expects computing professionals to challenge unethical rules – and break them if a rule “has an inadequate moral basis or causes recognisable harm”.

It’s also one thing to respect local customs and laws, and another to actively implement them, as Google will be doing. By collaborating, Google, as a large Western company, stands accused of giving credence to these oppressive laws. providing the Chinese state with political weight and propaganda for their policies.

Betraying its values?

It would be highly hypocritical of Google to take advantage of the values that have allowed it to grow to the behemoth it is today in much of the world – democracy, freedom of speech, personal autonomy == and then drop these when moving into the Chinese market. Instead of being a values-driven company, it seems from this move that it is purely profit-driven.

So what should Google do? One way of responsibly dealing with this would be to open up project Dragonfly to input from the rest of the company, not just the hundred or so working directly on it. Let the Google employee base and other non-shareholder stakeholders decide where the red lines for Google’s values should be.

Research has indicated that ethical companies are more profitable, retaining employees who are proud to work for the company, and earning respect and loyalty from the public. Standing up and showing China the value of democratic participation in company value identification will likely earn Google more respect both home and abroad.

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Please note you do not have access to teaching notes, google in china: government censorship and corporate reputation.

Journal of Business Strategy

ISSN : 0275-6668

Article publication date: 8 May 2007

This paper examines the communication strategies organization, and tactics of Google as corporate executives and staff planned and began executing the company's global expansion strategy with entry into the Chinese market.


The paper takes the form of a case study.

To do business in the Chinese market, Google had to comply with Chinese Government censorship restrictions. The company's decision to do so was announced in the wake of Google's very recent refusal to provide user information to the US Government case against child pornography. Wall Street's response confirmed the profit potential of the venture, as the company's share price rose 3.6 percent in just one day, and continued rising to record heights. However, the company's announcement brought strong reaction from the press and human rights organizations. Within days, headlines were screaming across the USA and around the world, accusing Google of abandoning its principles in pursuit of profit.


Mass media in the USA and throughout the developed world heaped scorn and criticism on Google for its decision to censor searches from its servers inside China. Various NGOs took up the drumbeat of criticism, implying that Google could not be trusted with personal data, including search topics. At the same time, however, Wall Street continued to reward the company with a seemingly endless streak of record share price postings. The question appears simple: does the pursuit of profit in the developing world trump the need for ethics and values in business operations?

  • Corporate communications
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O'Rourke, J.S. , Harris, B. and Ogilvy, A. (2007), "Google in China: government censorship and corporate reputation", Journal of Business Strategy , Vol. 28 No. 3, pp. 12-22.

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2007, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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Google Employees Protest Secret Work on Censored Search Engine for China

google china censorship case study

By Kate Conger and Daisuke Wakabayashi

  • Aug. 16, 2018

Hundreds of Google employees, upset at the company’s decision to secretly build a censored version of its search engine for China , have signed a letter demanding more transparency to understand the ethical consequences of their work.

In the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times, employees wrote that the project and Google’s apparent willingness to abide by China’s censorship requirements “raise urgent moral and ethical issues.” They added, “Currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment.”

The letter is circulating on Google’s internal communication systems and is signed by about 1,400 employees, according to three people familiar with the document, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

The internal activism presents another obstacle for Google’s potential return to China eight years after the company publicly withdrew from the country in protest of censorship and government hacking. China has the world’s largest internet audience but has frustrated American tech giants with content restrictions or outright blockages of services including Facebook and Instagram.

It is also the latest example of how Google’s outspoken work force has agitated for changes to strategy. In April, the internet company’s employees spoke out against its involvement in a Pentagon program that uses artificial intelligence to improve weaponry. By June, Google had said it would not renew a contract with the Pentagon for A.I. work.

Google’s interest in bringing search back to China came to the forefront earlier this month, when reports surfaced that the company was working on a search app that restricts content banned by Beijing. The project, known internally as Dragonfly, was developed largely in secret, prompting outrage among employees who worried they had been unwittingly working on technology that would help China withhold information from its citizens.

“We urgently need more transparency, a seat at the table, and a commitment to clear and open processes: Google employees need to know what we’re building,” the letter said.

The letter also called on Google to allow employees to participate in ethical reviews of the company’s products, to appoint external representatives to ensure transparency and to publish an ethical assessment of controversial projects. The document referred to the situation as a code yellow, a process used in engineering to address critical problems that impact several teams.

Google declined to comment on the letter. It has said in the past that it will not comment on Dragonfly or “speculation about future plans.”

Late on Thursday, employees pressed Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, and other management about Dragonfly at a weekly staff meeting. As of late Wednesday, one of the top questions on an internal software system called Dory, which lets employees vote for the queries that executives should answer at the meeting, asked whether Google had lost its ethical compass, said people who had reviewed the questions. Other questions on Dory asked directly about the Dragonfly project and specific information that may be censored by the Chinese government, such as air pollution data.

“If we were to do our mission well, we are to think seriously about how to do more in China,” Mr. Pichai said in the staff meeting, audio of which was obtained by The Times. “That said, we are not close to launching a search product in China.”

Mr. Pichai and Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, stopped answering questions about Dragonfly after seeing their answers posted on Twitter.

This week’s staff meeting was the first opportunity for Google’s work force to ask executives about Dragonfly, because the meeting was not held last week. The absence of a gathering — the result of a regularly scheduled break in the summer, according to a company spokesman, Rob Shilkin — led to fears among employees that leadership was becoming less transparent following several controversies over Google’s government work.

Google has traditionally been more responsive to employee concerns and more transparent about future projects and inner workings than other major technology companies, inviting questions from workers at its staff meetings and encouraging internal debate.

The internal dissent over Dragonfly comes on the heels of the employee protests over Google’s involvement in the Pentagon project to use artificial intelligence. After Google said it would not renew its contract with the Pentagon, it unveiled a series of ethical principles governing its use of A.I.

In those principles, Google publicly committed to use A.I. only in “socially beneficial” ways that would not cause harm and promised to develop its capabilities in accordance with human rights law. Some employees have raised concerns that helping China suppress the free flow of information would violate these new principles.

In 2010, Google said it had discovered that Chinese hackers had attacked the company’s corporate infrastructure in an attempt to access to the Gmail accounts of human rights activists. The attack, combined with government censorship, propelled Google to pull its search engine from the country.

The exit from China was a seminal moment for the company — a symbol of its uncompromising idealism captured by Google’s unofficial motto of “Don’t Be Evil.” At the time, Chinese internet users marked the loss of Google’s search engine by laying flowers at the company’s Beijing offices in what became known as an “ illegal flower tribute .” A possible re-entry to China, according to current and former employees, is a sign of a more mature and pragmatic company.

Letter From Google Employees

Hundreds of employees at the tech company urged their leadership to be more transparent about its ethics and its use of artificial intelligence.

google china censorship case study

Google has maintained a significant presence in China even though its flagship services are not accessible in the country. Last year, Google announced plans for a research center in China focused on artificial intelligence. And it has introduced translation and file management apps for the Chinese market. Google now has more than 700 employees in China.

Google’s work on Dragonfly is not a guarantee that its search engine will be welcomed back to China. The government would have to approve its return and it has kept American technology firms like Facebook at arm’s length, opting instead to work closely with homegrown internet behemoths.

Some employees are in favor of re-entering China, arguing that exiting the country in protest of censorship has done little to pressure Beijing to change its position while it has made Google nonessential among the world’s largest base of internet users.

When Google pulled out of China in 2010, Mr. Brin said it objected to the country’s “totalitarian” policies when it came to censorship, political speech and internet communications. If anything, China has only tightened its controls in the last eight years — leaving the company in a bind for how to justify its return.

“You can never satisfy a censor, particularly the ones in China,” said Charles Mok, member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council who advocates and represents the information technology sector and who is affiliated with the territory’s democratic camp.

Google is probably facing intense pressure to introduce more of its products in China, Mr. Mok said, but added that the company would lend legitimacy to government censorship if it debuted a censored search product in China.

“Then the Chinese government can say, ‘Google is O.K. with it, too,’” he said.

Follow Kate Conger and Daisuke Wakabayashi on Twitter: @kateconger and @daiwaka .

google china censorship case study

China exporting censorship, surveillance to Southeast Asian nations through 'Digital Silk Road': Report

B eijing [China], May 24 (ANI): China, which claims to assist Southeast Asian countries in modernizing their digital landscapes through investments in infrastructure as part of its 'Digital Silk Road', rights groups say that Beijing is also export ing its model of "authoritarian governance" of the internet through censorship, surveillance , and control s, the report by the Voice of America stated.

China's state media announced this week that Chinese electrical appliance manufacturer Midea Group jointly built its first overseas 5G factory in Thailand with Thai mobile operator AIS, Chinese telecom service provider China Unicom, and tech giant Huawei.

The 2,08,000-square-meter smart factory will have its own 5G network, Xinhua news agency reported.

Earlier this month, Beijing reached an agreement with Cambodia to establish a Digital Law Library of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Inter-Parliamentary Assembly.

Cambodia's Khmer Times said the objective is to "expand all-round cooperation in line with the strategic partnership and building a common destiny community."

But the rights groups say that parallel to these technology investments promoted by China's state media, Beijing is also helping countries in the region to build what they call "digital authoritarian governance."

Article 19, an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting freedom of expression globally and named after Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in an April report said the purpose of the Digital Silk Road is not solely to promote China's technology industry.

The report, China: The rise of digital repression in the Indo-Pacific, says "Beijing is also using its technology to reshape the region's standards of digital freedom and governance to increasingly match its own," the VOA reported.

Looking at case studies of Cambodia, Malaysia, Nepal and Thailand, the Article 19 report says Beijing is spreading China's model of digital governance along with Chinese technology and investments from companies such as Huawei, ZTE and Alibaba.

Michael Caster, Asia digital program manager with Article 19, told VOA, "China has been successful at providing a needed service, in the delivery of digital development toward greater connectivity, but also in making digital development synonymous with the adoption of PRC [People's Republic of China]-style digital governance, which is at odds with international human rights and internet freedom principles, by instead promoting notions of total state control through censorship and surveillance , and digital sovereignty away from universal norms."

The group says in Thailand, which is home to the world's largest overseas Chinese community, agreements with China led to a rise in internet control s imposed after Thailand's 2014 coup. It also notes that Bangkok has since been considering a China-style Great Firewall, the censorship mechanism Beijing uses to control online content.

In Nepal, the report notes security and intelligence-sharing agreements with China and concerns that Chinese security camera technology is being used to surveil exiled Tibetans, the largest such group outside India.

The group says Malaysia's approach to information infrastructure appears to increasingly resemble China's model, citing Kuala Lumpur's cybersecurity law passed in April and its partnering with Chinese companies whose technology has been used for repressing minorities inside China, as reported by VOA News.

The Article 19 report further stated that China is involved at "all levels" of Cambodia's digital ecosystem. Huawei, which is facing increasing bans in Western nations over cybersecurity concerns, has a monopoly on cloud services in Cambodia.

While Chinese companies say they would not hand over private data to Beijing, experts doubt they would have any choice because of national security laws.

Phnom Penh announced a decree in 2021 to build a National Internet Gateway similar to China's Great Firewall, restricting the Cambodian people's access to Western media and social networking sites.

"That we have seen the normalization of a China-style Great Firewall in some of the countries where China's influence is most pronounced or its digital development support strongest, such as with Cambodia, is no coincidence," Caster said.

The Cambodian government says the portal will strengthen national security and help combat tax fraud and cybercrime. But the Internet Society, a U.S.- and Switzerland-based nonprofit internet freedom group, says it would allow the government to monitor individual internet use and transactions, and to trace identities and locations.

Kian Vesteinsson, a senior researcher for technology and democracy with the rights group Freedom House, told VOA, "The Chinese Communist Party and companies that are aligned with the Chinese state have led a charge internationally to push for internet fragmentation. And when I say internet fragmentation, I mean these efforts to carve out domestic internets that are isolated from global internet traffic."

Despite Chinese support and investment, Vesteinsson notes that Cambodia has not yet implemented the plan for a government- control led internet.

"Building the Chinese model of digital authoritarianism into a country's internet infrastructure is extraordinarily difficult. It's expensive. It requires technical capacity. It requires state capacity, and all signs point to the Cambodian government struggling on those fronts," he added.

Vesteinsson says while civil society and foreign political pressure play a role, business concerns are also relevant as requirements to censor online speech or spy on users create costs for the private sector.

"These governments that are trying to cultivate e-commerce should keep in mind that a legal environment that is free from these obligations to do censorship and surveillance will be more appealing to companies that are evaluating whether to start up domestic operations," he said.

Article 19's Caster says countries concerned about China's authoritarian internet model spreading should do more to support connectivity and internet development worldwide, according to VOA News.

"This support should be based on human rights law and internet freedom principles," he said, "to prevent China from exploiting internet development needs to position its services - and often by extension its authoritarian model - as the most accessible option."

China will hold its annual Internet conference in Beijing July 9-11. China's Xinhua news agency reports this year's conference will discuss artificial intelligence, digital government, information technology application innovation, data security, and international cooperation. (ANI)

Representative Image


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    2006 | Case No. P54. Political Economy. Using servers located in the United States, Google began offering a Chinese-language version of in 2000. The site, however, was frequently unavailable or slow because of censoring by the Chinese government. After extensive debate within the company, Google decided to offer a modified version of ...

  3. Why Google Quit China—and Why It's Heading Back

    Google had set up shop in China four years before the breach, offering a version of its services that conformed to the government's oppressive censorship policies. At the time, Google officials ...

  4. Google's censored Chinese search engine: a catalogue of ethical violations?

    This project, named Dragonfly, will encompass a new, heavily censored version of Google's search services, including mobile apps, that will be run in partnership with a local company in China.


    to launch, Google seemed to be implying that its mission and values could be consistent with self-censorship in China. From a financial perspective, China represented for Google a dynamic and fast-growing, though increasingly competitive, market. With over 105 million users online in early 2006, China's Internet market was the second

  6. A Clash of values: a case study of Google's experience in China (2006-2010)

    This case study research examines: (1) the clashing of values within Google's four year. period in China (2006-2010), (2) the relationships between Google's stakeholders and decision. making process using a modified stakeholder-network theory, and (3) how Google's value. system played in its decision-making. Keywords:

  7. A New Approach to China: Google and Censorship in the Chinese Market

    Abstract. The first across-the-table negotiation between Google and China concluded successfully in 2006, when Google received a license to establish a local domain ( targeted at Chinese Internet users and not subject to the "Great Firewall.". During these negotiations both Google and the Chinese government struggled to reach an ...

  8. Google's China Problem (and China's Google Problem)

    Clive Thompson article on Google's operations in China,, and self-censorship to which it subjects company, which has been accused of collaboration with Communist Party merely to secure ...

  9. Google in China: government censorship and corporate reputation

    This case study examines Google's drastic decision to withdraw entirely from mainland China in the complex multiplicity of ethical, cultural, and political conflicts that affect this particular case, and raises the question of how multinational corporations can achieve corporate growth while negotiating the highly sensitive sociopolitical and institutional environments of foreign nations.

  10. Google's China problem: A case study on trade, technology and Human

    Google and China from both theoretical and practical perspectives. Starting with an overview of the internet censorship regime in China, the article goes on to assess the legal merits of a WTO challenge in this case. First, the article discusses which service sector or subsectors might be at issue. Second, the article analyzes whether

  11. Google's China Problem: A Case Study on Trade, Technology and Human

    Starting with an overview of the internet censorship regime in China, the article goes on to assess the legal merits of a WTO challenge in this case. ... Gao, Henry S., Google's China Problem: A Case Study on Trade, Technology and Human Rights Under the GATS (December 24, 2011). Asian Journal of WTO & International Health Law and Policy (AJWH

  12. Internet Development, Censorship, and Cyber Crimes in China

    Abstract. Since its first Internet connection with the global computer network in 1994, China has witnessed explosive Internet development. By the end of 2008, China replaced the United States as the largest Internet user of the world. Although China enjoyed tremendous economic benefits from Internet development, the Chinese government has ...

  13. PDF Searching for Internet Freedom in China: a Case Study on Google S China

    principles on which Google's business has been built, the company eventually terminated its physical search-engine operations in China in 2010 after several rounds of negotiations with the Chinese government. Using as a case study, this Article illustrates China's method of regulating the Internet, which may become a dominant

  14. Google to end China censorship

    Google has said it will end the controversial censorship of its search service in China and risk expulsion from the most populous internet market, following what it claimed were Chinese-based ...

  15. Google and the Government of China: A Case Study in Cross-Cultural

    Abstract. Based on the negotiation between Google and the Chinese government to allow access by Chinese citizens to a high-speed Chinese version of the Google search engine. In order to reach agreement with the Chinese government, Google had to agree to allow the government to censor access to some sites turned up by Google's search engine.

  16. Google in China: government censorship and corporate reputation

    To do business in the Chinese market, Google had to comply with Chinese Government censorship restrictions. The company's decision to do so was announced in the wake of Google's very recent refusal to provide user information to the US Government case against child pornography. Wall Street's response confirmed the profit potential of the ...

  17. Internet Censorship in China: Looking Through the Lens of

    As a preliminary search using the terms "censorship," "Internet censorship," and "Internet censorship + China" in Google Ngram Viewer ... (2014) Batman, pandaman and the blind man: a case study in social change memes and internet censorship in China. Journal of Visual Culture 13(3): 359-375. Crossref. Google Scholar. Müller Beate ...

  18. Google Employees Protest Secret Work on Censored Search Engine for China

    Aly Song/Reuters. Hundreds of Google employees, upset at the company's decision to secretly build a censored version of its search engine for China, have signed a letter demanding more ...

  19. Google China Censorship Issue Case Study

    Google China Censorship Issue Case Study. Mar 29, 2010 •. 3 likes • 4,907 views. V. Viola5. Business. 1 of 29. Google China Censorship Issue Case Study - Download as a PDF or view online for free.

  20. Google in China

    Google in China - A Case Study - Free download as Powerpoint Presentation (.ppt), PDF File (.pdf), Text File (.txt) or view presentation slides online. Google faced ethical issues when operating in China due to government censorship policies. There were two main issues: whether Google could honor its "Don't be evil" motto while censoring results, and whether withdrawing from China would ...

  21. Google in China

    Google in China - A Case Study - Free download as Word Doc (.doc), PDF File (.pdf), Text File (.txt) or read online for free. Google faced an ethical dilemma when operating its search engine in China due to the country's strict censorship policies. While Google aimed to provide open information access, it had to censor search results according to government rules to do business in ...

  22. Google China Censorship Case Study

    Google China Censorship Case Study - Free download as PDF File (.pdf), Text File (.txt) or read online for free. google-china-censorship-case-study

  23. Censorship In China Case Study

    Censorship In China Case Study. 1041 Words5 Pages. Introduction Free speech is something that the American people have grown accustom to and often take for granted. Many other countries such as China do not know such rights. Censorship in the People's Republic of China (PRC) is implemented or mandated by the PRC's ruling party, the Communist ...

  24. Decoding China: Who will shape the internet of the future?

    05/26/2024 May 26, 2024. The US-China rivalry is not limited to politics and business. China is working on creating its own version of internet with the "Digital Silk Road."

  25. China: Overseas students face harassment and surveillance in campaign

    Surveillance, censorship and targeting family members in China In recent years, many overseas Chinese students have taken part in public criticism of the Chinese government, including around the 2022 "White Paper" protests in mainland China, the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and annual commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen ...

  26. China exporting censorship, surveillance to Southeast Asian nations

    Looking at case studies of Cambodia, Malaysia, Nepal and Thailand, the Article 19 report says Beijing is spreading China's model of digital governance along with Chinese technology and investments ...