According to a new report from The Intercept, work has “effectively” ended on the Chinese search engine (project Dragonfly) which Google had been preparing to launch in early 2019. According to the report, internal conflict between teams at Google, as well as significant resistance from Google employees at large is preventing the project from moving forward.

No plans to launch Dragonfly. In recent testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said, in response to questioning, that Google had no plans to launch a search engine in China. The following excerpt of Pichai’s testimony was provided by Google via email:

Right now there are no plans for us to launch a search product in China. We are, in general, always looking to see how best — it’s part of our core mission and our principles to try hard — to provide users with information. We have evidence, based on every country we’ve operated in, [that] us reaching out and giving users more information has a very positive impact and we feel that calling. But right now there are no plans to launch in China. To the extent we approach a position like that, I will be fully transparent, including with policymakers here, and engage and consult widely.

However, this appears to be a change of position. During an on-stage appearance in October, Pichai made comments that suggested he was very pleased with the project and that it was on track to launch as earlier had been reported.

Instrument of state surveillance. Ever since the project details leaked there has been growing internal opposition at Google. A memo written by Google employees asserted that Chinese users would be tracked and that the government would have complete access to their data, including location — effectively turning the search engine into an instrument of state surveillance. Indeed, China is using all forms of advanced technology including facial recognition to track and monitor its entire population.

The Intercept characterizes the shift as a “major blow to top Google executives,” some of whom have been eager to return to the world’s largest internet market since the company quit China in 2010, after Gmail was hacked by government-affiliated entities.

Why you should care. Assuming the story is accurate, the decision does not impact U.S.-based marketers directly. However, it’s an instance of how internal and external pressure can have a significant impact on policy and product development at major internet companies. We saw something similar with Google employee objections to making AI available to the U.S. Defense Department. That resulted in an AI manifesto, in which Google pledges not to develop “technologies that cause or are likely to cause overall harm.”

In a volatile and politicized environment, it’s important for marketers to not simply “put their heads down” and avoid the larger social implications of the platforms they use. We must all think about the ethical dimensions of our work. Ethical conduct help builds trust and confidence among users, which ultimately maps to the bottom line.

About The Author

Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog, Screenwerk, about connecting the dots between digital media and real-world consumer behavior. He is also VP of Strategy and Insights for the Local Search Association. Follow him on Twitter or find him at Google+.

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