Six US senators have written to Google CEO Sundar Pichai asking about the tech giant’s reported plan to create a censored Chinese version of its search engine.
“What has changed since 2010 to make Google comfortable cooperating with the rigorous censorship regime in China?” asked the senators, including Florida Republican Marco Rubio, Fortune reported on Sunday.
According to the letter, Google’s project is “deeply troubling and risks making Google complicit in human rights abuses” in China.
Google in 2010 “refused to comply with Chinese government censorship requirements on ethical grounds, and essentially abandoned the market,” said the report.
Media reports surfaced last week that Google is planning a censored search engine for China.
According to The Information, the company is also developing a news-aggregation app for use in China that will comply with the country’s censorship laws.
Google was yet to officially confirm or deny the search engine project.
The senators asked whether the agreement was “connected in any way with (Google’s) efforts to enter the Chinese market via the custom search app”.
The letter also asked “which ‘blacklist’ of censored searches and websites” Google would use in a Chinese search product.
The state-owned China Securities Daily, however, last week refuted the report that Google is building a search engine for China.
China is home to 772 million Internet users – the biggest online community in the world.
Google, which has hundreds of people working in China, has launched its Artificial Intelligence (AI) lab in the country.
The finalised version could be launched in the next six to nine months, pending approval from Chinese officials, it added.
Google declined to comment on specifics mentioned in The Intercept report, but noted that it has launched a number of mobile apps in the country and works with local developers as part of maintaining its domestic presence.
China’s top Internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.
Google’s main search platform is blocked in China along with its video platform YouTube, but it has been attempting to make new inroads into China.
In January, the search engine joined an investment in Chinese live-stream
Room for Google?
In the monopolistic Chinese search market, Google would likely have a terribly hard time gaining users unless its product was dramatically better than the competition.In 2009, before Google retreated from China, local search giant Baidu was trouncing it with 76 percent market share, according to the firm iResearch. Microsoft-owned Bing has had a censored search product in China for years, but it too has failed to gain traction. Baidu still has 73.8 percent market share in China, according to Statista.
“Google got its butt kicked by Baidu once,” says Shawn Rein, managing director at the China Market Research Group. “When we interviewed consumers at the time, 90 percent of them said that they used Baidu for Chinese language search, and only used Google for English search, because the results in Chinese just paled in comparison to Baidu’s. In the last decade, Baidu has just gotten better, while Google still doesn’t have the trust of knowing the Chinese language.”
Since news of a potential search relaunch broke, Rein says that the reaction of Chinese internet users has been tepid, due to doubt that a censored Google would be significantly different, much the less better, than a censored Baidu.
Like Baidu, a censored Google search app would completely block results for sensitive queries, including “human rights” and “peaceful protest,” according to The Intercept, while suppressing results to other queries off of the first page.
If Google did launch its app, he expects that Baidu, in the face of renewed competition, would use nationalism to keep users from straying, similar to its tactics in the early 2000s.
Search terms about human rights, democracy, religion and peaceful protests will be among the words blacklisted in the search engine app, which The Intercept said had already been demonstrated to the Chinese government.