Despite Obstacles, Google May Make its Way Back to China

Getting back into China after an eight year absence isn’t going to be easy for Google, even though the company developed a mobile search app capable of employing censorship. President Trump is threatening to dramatically expand existing tariffs against China, which could retaliate by blocking the operation of U.S. businesses there. Recently, Qualcomm ended its attempt to buy NXP Semiconductors after China withheld approval; China also sidelined Facebook’s plan to build an innovation hub there.

The Wall Street Journal quotes Marbridge Consulting managing director of industry research Mark Natkin as saying that, “at this moment, it’s not a particularly hospitable environment.” To launch a Google search engine there, the company would need approval of the Cyberspace Administration of China. “I’d imagine getting such a search permit would be difficult, if not impossible for the company,” said Natkin.

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Google’s return to the Chinese market would also be a competitive threat to Baidu, a search engine now designated by the government as “a national champion in the development of self-driving cars.” Also problematic is the fact that, when Google left China in 2010, co-founder Sergey Brin accused the government there of totalitarianism, adding that he found it “quite troubling.” China Market Research Group senior analyst Ben Cavender said it “isn’t likely” that the government has forgotten those remarks.

On the plus side, “Google’s Android smartphone operating system is used by China’s smartphone manufacturers, who count on good relations with Google for product development, especially for phones sold outside China.” Nonetheless Google has also faced criticism — most recently from Google researcher Meredith Whittaker and Senator Marco Rubio — for “ceding to Chinese censorship.” Google currently has three offices with 700 employees in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

The New York Times reports that, according to sources, Google’s search engine, which will “filter websites and search terms that are blacklisted by the Chinese government,” has already been demonstrated to Chinese government officials. It noted that LinkedIn censors content in China and Facebook “developed software to suppress certain posts from appearing on the social network, with the aim of potentially deploying it in China, though there was no indication it was offered to Chinese authorities.”

With regard to a Google search engine customized for China, Amnesty International responded by saying it would be a “dark day for Internet freedom” and would constitute “a gross attack on freedom of information and Internet freedom” if Google accepted China’s terms. Several Google employees have “expressed their disappointment about the China project on internal messaging platforms,” said employees, and others have declined to work on the project.

Google spokesman Taj Meadows would not “comment on speculation about future plans.” The company did, however, invest $550 million in Chinese online retailer JD.com in June, and, last year, debuted plans to open an AI research center there. In the on-going tariff conversations between the U.S. and China, pointed out one source, the Chinese government could use Google as a bargaining chip.

Related:
Google Is in China Cloud Talks With Tencent, Others, Bloomberg, 8/3/18