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December 17, 2018

Internal Row Blows up Google’s Censored Chinese Search Engine: Reports

"It appears that Google has used 265.com as a honeypot for market research"

By CBR Staff Writer

Google’s privacy team have shut down access to search data crucial to the company’s ability to build a censored search engine for the Chinese market, according to The Intercept.

Google engineers were harvesting search queries from a Beijing-based website, 265.com, that the company bought in 2008, and comparing the results to those returned by a Google search for the same term, Ryan Gallagher reports.

This allowed them to help develop a prototype of “Project Dragonfly”, the controversial search engine for China which would censor out banned websites like Wikipedia, the BBC and Facebook, along with other blacklisted sites.

Google’s Chinese Search Engine “Tapped 265.com Data” 

After allegedly only finding out about the engineering team’s access to this data via a previous Intercept story, Google’s privacy team told them they were not longer able to use 265.com data to build the search engine, Gallagher claims.

Search queries entered on 265.com are redirected to Baidu, the most popular search engine in China and Google’s main competitor in the country.

Gallagher notes: “As The Intercept reported in August, it appears that Google has used 265.com as a honeypot for market research, storing information about Chinese users’ searches before sending them along to Baidu.”

This allowed engineers to cross-check which websites in the Google search results would be blocked by China’s Great Firewall and blacklist them from the engine it has widely been reported to be developing. The company’s privacy team intervened following several tense discussions.

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The team is now using global queries in Chinese on Google instead, two sources told the publication, which was founded in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks and which is owned by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, but this has caused major issues with the project and engineers have been pulled off it. google's chinese search engine

A snapshot of China’s journalism, which censored searchers would be able to read. Sample: today’s headlines from Xinhua.net

Google’s plans for Chinese search engine have drawn sustained criticism, including via an open letter from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, among other leading NGOs.

Saying the Chinese government runs one of the “world’s most repressive internet censorship and surveillance regimes”,  they said the move would be in breach of the company’s own Code of Conduct, which promises to advance users’ rights to privacy and freedom of expression globally as well as its AI Principles, in which Google promises not to build “technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights”.

See also: Donald Trump, Human Rights Watch in Unlikely One-Two Attack on Google

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