Project Dragonfly, Google’s ongoing modeling work of how its search engine product would work in the authoritarian Chinese internet regime, is dead. The Intercept reports that the company’s decision was made in response to many employees internal complaints about Dragonfly being hidden from them.
Google’s modeling was based on data it harvested from a Chinese site it acquired in 2018 from billionaire Cai Wensheng called 265.com. For a time, the site had operated as normal as a bulletin board of news items and general interests along with a web search function that routed queries to domestic giant Baidu. Google was able to sift queries to see what kind of results would be produced, which would be censored and other pieces of metadata.
It appears that Google’s privacy division did not know about the project until The Intercept reported on it and had subsequently interrogated the engineers in charge of Dragonfly. This ended up resulting in the 265.com data being banned for modeling purposes.
“The 265 data was integral to Dragonfly,” one source said. “Acces to the data has been suspended now, which has stopped progress.”
One former Googler fingered Scott Beaumont, China lead and a co-originator of Dragonfly, as an obstructionist.
“[Beaumont] did not feel that the security, privacy, and legal teams should be able to question his product decisions, and maintained an openly adversarial relationship with them,” said Yonatan Zunger. “Quite outside the Google norm.”
Several division heads questioned the secrecy around Dragonfly and sparked internal backlash across the company. Employees started and signed an internal petition to end the project.
When asked by a congressional panel to explain the project, CEO Sundar Pichai testified that Google had no official plans to launch a search engine in China and accommodate it to the so-called Great Firewall.