After facing internal complaints, it appears that Google has shuttered its long-running, on-again, off-again project for a censored search engine in China known as Dragonfly. Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Google executive Karan Bhatia said that the company had "terminated Project Dragonfly."
The Intercept, which first reported the story in 2018, claims that Google "effectively ended" the project in late December. Knowledge of Dragonfly first became public knowledge in 2018, and many Google employees learned about the project to create a search engine meeting the Chinese government's restrictive standards
According to The Intercept, the internal dispute stemmed from another Google holding, the Chinese homepage 265.com. Originally owned by Chinese Internet mogul Cai Wensheng, 265.com was launched with the hopes of becoming an equivalent of Yahoo or AOL home pages. The site features a search bar which redirects its searches through the Chinese search giant Baidu.
In 2008, Google purchased 265 without much fanfare. On its current homepage, a link to download the search engine's browser, Chrome, sits prominently on the right hand corner. A decade later, according to The Intercept, Google was storing search information from users Baidu searches for themselves without notifying the company's Privacy division. Leading to an internal power struggle, the company eventually decided to limit the amount of information given to Dragonfly.
“The 265 data was integral to Dragonfly,” an anonymous source told The Intercept at the time. “Access to the data has been suspended now, which has stopped progress.”
While that appeared to the end of Dragonfly, in March 2019, The Verge reported that Google employees had noticed hundreds of recent changes in Dragonfly code. At the time, Google insisted that Dragonfly was dead. Speaking to Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, Bhatia reaffirmed that message.
When queried afterwards by BuzzFeed News to see if Dragonfly's termination meant that Google was abandoning its censored search project in China, the company said that it has "no plans to launch Search in China and there is no work being undertaken on such a project.”
If its truly the end for Dragonfly, then it represents the end of an effort nearly twenty years in the making for Google to try and break into the Chinese market. The company has been banned, come back, banned again, and played a long game with the Chinese government. The promise of China, with an internet-ready population of billions, has been tempting enough to be worth the effort.
But after all these years, in an era of increased censorship, the company may finally be throwing in the towel on an official presence. However, 265 included, the company still has many investments in China.