Monday, 20 August 2018 09:22

Google co-founder Brin denies knowledge of China project


Google co-founder Sergey Brin has claimed that he had no knowledge of a plan to build a censored search engine for the Chinese market before it was leaked to media. His claim was made during an employees' meeting that ended in an anti-climax after it was discovered that someone was leaking the proceedings to a reporter who was live-tweeting it.

The search engine plan, first reported by The Intercept on 1 August, has caused some ructions within Google and Thursday's meeting was the first time the company was reported to have discussed it with employees.

According to  The Intercept, Brin told employees that the project, known internally as Dragonfly, would have “certain trade-offs” and the process was “slow-going and complicated".

Brin's claim of ignorance appears surprising, given that he was one of those responsible for winding up an earlier bid to run a search engine service in China. Brin, who is of Russian origin, apparently was unhappy over the censorship in China which reminded him of conditions in Russia.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai, who is said to be behind the project, tried to depict the project to employees as being "in an exploration stage for quite a while now".

But he also claimed that Google was "not close to launching a search product in China", adding that “we’ll definitely be transparent as we get closer to actually having a plan of record".

The leaks, to New York Times reporter Kate Conger, were put up on a big screen during the meeting, and one employee abused the leaker, telling him/her "F*** you". According to  Business Insider, the mood of the meeting changed to favour the two officials, as the proceedings of such meetings are never leaked.

After the employee abused the leaker, the audience applauded and he was praised on the internal communications system.

The Dragonfly project is said to have been conceived by Pichai during a meeting with Wang Huning, a senior figure in the Chinese Communist Party, last December. Work on the search app was begun during the Western spring of 2017 and had been fast-tracked after the Pichai-Huning meeting.

Following the meeting with Huning, Google decided to open an artificial intelligence research centre in Beijing. In May 2018, a Google file management app was released for Chinese Internet users. And in July, Google released a “Guess The Sketch” game on WeChat, the main Chinese messaging and social media platform.

Google had a search presence in China between 2006 and 2010, but the censored search engine was subject to intense criticism in the US over its falling in line with Chinese Government policies.

This search service was stopped in March 2010, with Google saying that the reasons for its pulling out were China's bid to limit free speech, block websites, and break into Google's computer systems.

There have been reports that managers at Google are trying to shut down access to any material connected to the project. Another report said that engineers had used used search queries from a Chinese Web directory service owned by the company to develop blacklists for the censored search engine. And a third said protests were growing internally, with employees questioning the company's leaders over the search engine project.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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