In the face of censorship and cyberattacks, the Californian giant withdrew its search engine from China in 2010 and many of its services have since been stuck in the world’s second-largest economy.
But Google is now working, under the name “Dragonfly” (dragonfly), a specially modified version filtering sites and keywords banned by the Chinese government, told AFP an internal source.
The project code can be viewed and tested on Google’s internal computer network, according to the employee, who anonymously confirms information published by the US press.
The news has caused unease and consternation among many Google employees: “This has caused a lot of anxiety internally. Some are furious with what we are doing, “says the same source.
Taj Meadows, spokesperson for Google in Asia, declined to refute or confirm the existence of the project.
“We already have a number of mobile applications in China, such as Google Translate or FilesGo (document transfer), and have made significant investments with Chinese companies like JD.com,” the giant of e-commerce, says Mr. Meadows to AFP.
“But we will not comment on speculation about our future plans,” he insists.
The Intercept website, the first to reveal the existence of the program, claimed that this custom search engine was for the Android operating system for smartphones.
According to him, terms relating to human rights, democracy, religion and demonstrations will include a blacklist, while the application would identify and filter websites banned by the communist authorities.
The Chinese Internet is gagged by a complex system of censorship (“Great Electronic Wall”) that blocks social networks Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, Google and Gmail, as well as many Western media.
Chinese platforms like Weibo or WeChat are subject to a narrow censorship, summoned to self-regulate their content considered sensitive: critical voices of the regime, religious content, health scandals, rap music, cartoons too raw or gossip about celebrities…
In this context, foreign technology groups are faced with a dilemma: making concessions to power or giving up this gigantic market.
Microsoft is present in China with its Bing search engine.
Worried, Amnesty International has called on Google not to accept such compromises.
“It would be a dark day for the freedom of the web if Google submitted to the extreme rules of Chinese censorship to access a market” and “put the profits before human rights,” warned Patrick Poon, researcher of the NGOs.
However, according to the New York Times, citing nearby sources, Google has demonstrated to Chinese government officials but this does not mean an imminent return of the search engine in China.
“The project of the censored search engine are not completed,” abounds the Wall Street Journal.
The information suggesting that Google’s return to the Chinese market “are not consistent with reality,” insisted on Thursday the official Chinese daily Zhengquan Ribao, citing “the authorities concerned.”
If Google, exasperated by growing restrictions and cyber-attacks targeting some Chinese users, had withdrawn in 2010 its search engine of the local internet, he never really left China.
The California group, a subsidiary of Alphabet, has continued to earn advertising revenue in the country, where it currently has three offices and more than 700 employees.
Signs of thaw have also emerged: Beijing last year authorized access to the Google Translate for mobile application, hitherto blocked.
Google also announced this winter the opening of an artificial intelligence research center in Beijing, as well as a cooperation agreement with the Chinese juggernaut of the internet Tencent.
But employee discomfort could complicate setting up a censored search engine.
Recently, a petition asking Google not to make a colossal contract with the US military had gathered more than 4,000 signatures of employees – they considered this collaboration contrary to the values of the company, whose original slogan was: “Do not be malicious…”