On Wednesday, Google vice president of public policy Karan Bhatia told members of the Senate Judiciary that the company’s Project Dragonfly — a search engine for the Chinese market that was widely reported to involve huge concessions to state censors and protested by its own staff — has been “terminated” and employees working on it have been reassigned, per BuzzFeed News.
Responding to questions from U.S. Republican Senator Josh Hawley, Bhatia said that “We have terminated Project Dragonfly.” That’s the first time it has used such a concrete term to describe the fate of the project, BuzzFeed noted. In response to a request from comment from Gizmodo as well as other outlets, Google pointed to statements it issued in March 2019:
“As we’ve said for many months, we have no plans to launch Search in China and there is no work being undertaken on such a project. Team members have moved to new projects.”
It's always a fascinating semantic question. The right way to answer that is to actually ask where the headcount went after the cancellation… https://t.co/0ebTySR3xE
— Liz Fong-Jones (方禮真) (@lizthegrey) July 16, 2019
Google withdrew many of its services from China in 2010 amid concerns of surveillance and censorship by the country’s authoritarian government, but in the past few years has been reported to be eyeing a comeback as it watched competitors take over its gargantuan market. It has continued to maintain staff there working in hardware and sales.
As late as December 2018, Google was wishy-washy about the state of Project Dragonfly, with CEO Sundar Pichai telling the House Judiciary Committee that the company had no plans to launch in China “right now.” As late as March 2019, some Google employees suspected work was continuing in secret, according to the Independent.
But in general the torrent of criticism directed at Google over Dragonfly has showed no signs of ceasing and came at the same time it decided not to renew its Project Maven drone-imaging contract with the Pentagon (Google is still paying a political price in D.C. on all subjects China-related).
According to Bloomberg, Senator Mark Warner also said on Wednesday that Pichai had told him that Google was backing off from its Chinese ambitions. Warner was light on specifics, though Bloomberg noted that Google signed a deal to “cross-licence technology and intellectual property” with Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings in January 2018 and was reportedly in talks to offer cloud services in China later that year.
“I do think there’s some explaining that Google needs to make,” Warner told Bloomberg Technology. “I’ve met with the Google CEO. He said they are backing out of some of those partnerships, and they’re willing to work with the U.S. government.”