Some Google employees believe they found evidence that Google’s plans to launch a censored search engine — codenamed “Dragonfly” — in China are still ongoing, according to a new report from The Intercept. Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai told US regulators last year that Google had “no plans” to launch the censored search engine “right now.” But some Google employees, unsatisfied and suspicious, have found internal evidence that suggests development has continued.
Employees spotted around 500 changes to Dragonfly-related code in December. Another 400 changes were made to the code in January, indicating to the employees that the project was still ongoing. They also investigated the company budgeting plans and saw that about 100 workers were still grouped under the budget associated with Project Dragonfly.
Reached for comment, Google denied that work had continued on Dragonfly. “This speculation is wholly inaccurate. Quite simply: there’s no work happening on Dragonfly,” a Google representative told The Verge. “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.”
The censored search project would have offered China a search engine that blocked results for sensitive topics. Those topics would likely have included Xinjiang, Tibet, and the Tiananmen Square massacre, based on what is already censored for existing search engines that operate in China.
It’s possible that the code changes were just the finishing touches to bring the project to an end. But it’s possible that the code changes mean the project hasn’t halted, despite Pichai’s claims. One Google software engineer told The Intercept he suspected that Pichai might be waiting for the outrage over the project to taper off before starting the plans again under a new codename.
Google is currently blocked in China. According to The Intercept’s initial reporting, Dragonfly was meant to give Google a way back into the country, giving it access to a large user base, and giving Chinese internet users access to more information. Over a thousand Google employees have protested the project by signing an open letter highlighting the human rights abuses Google would become complicit in if Dragonfly were to launch. Several Google employees have also quit partly over the lack of transparency surrounding Project Dragonfly. Google publicly backed off on the project in December.
Update March 4th, 2:44PM ET: This article was updated with comment from Google.