Project Dragonfly: Google’s Intentions for China’s Search Market

While China’s search market is dominated by Baidu, it is currently under threat by mobile-only disruptors such as Shenma. Shenma’s growth continues to accelerate since it’s launch in 2014. However, there have been recent news reports suggesting that Google may also aim to re-enter the market. This comes after having its search property (and others) blocked by the Chinese state back in 2010. So, what’s the story with Project Dragonfly?

This week, we shall be breaking down the facts and separating them from the rumours of these reports. What is fact? What is fiction? And what can we expect from Google in China over the short and long-term?

Project Dragonfly is Real

The Latest official statement on Project Dragonfly came from Google at the end of September. During a Senate hearing attended by the search engine’s chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, had this to say:

“There is a Project Dragonfly.” However, he continued to say that he was “not clear on the contours of what is in scope or out of scope for that project”.

Enright also pointed out “we’re not close to launching a search product in China, and whether we eventually could, or would, remains unclear.”  He made a note that if Project Dragonfly were past the early stages of exploration and development, then his team would be currently reviewing the product. This would be to ensure it follows Google’s privacy values. So, we can officially say that Project Dragonfly is in the works. However, it is still very early days.

Google is Building New Partnerships in the Region

Google has spent the past year negotiating with major digital companies within the country. This includes patent cross-licensing agreement with Tencent and a partnership with JD.com. In July, the company released an AI-powered mini-game on WeChat. What’s more, it has also invested in an AI centre in Beijing, as well as many other domestic companies.

Project Dragonfly is Rumoured to be a Partnership between Google and another Company

There is significance with these partnerships between Google and Chinese companies. Security news website, The Intercept, has been the primary reference for Dragonfly stories. Last month, they reported that an internal memo had been leaked. This memo, supposedly, contained certain details regarding Project Dragonfly. Google is yet to make a statement in response to this. Due to their silence, we cannot be sure what is or is not true. However, we shall see in due time. There are many elements of this report that seem to be trustworthy.

One significant detail is that the development of Project Dragonfly is between both Google and another unknown company. All that we can say is that this company is based in mainland China. This would be in keeping with Google’s recent deal-making activities. It would not be surprising if this unknown partner turned out to be a company we have previously mentioned.

The Intercept: Users must Sign-in to use the Service

This is where we significance with Google’s partner and the project. Whoever they may be, it is possible that they will have access to the sign-in data. There is also speculation that phone numbers and IP addresses will be linked to searches as well. This is in addition to movements.

In terms of China’s mobile search market, personal and locational data is likely to help Google compete with Shenma. Looking from another perspective, China as a proponent of “cyber sovereignty” makes many people uneasy about such data potentially being accessed by the government.

It is also possible for Google’s unknown partner to be able to edit and amend search results. Dragonfly’s SERPs would need to follow China’s strict censorship laws. So, if it is a partnership project, Google may find it easier running the project within the parameters set by the Chinese government. This may also make things simpler in the eyes of the users. Perhaps if the tool is not seen as a Google product, but rather with a by-line that is “powered by Google”, then the company can relieve itself of some of the censorship responsibility.

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