A few weeks back, we learned Google was developing something called "Project Dragonfly", a new search
engine for the Chinese market that would function in compliance with Beijing's strict rules on censorship.

In an organisation that talks up transparency, it is ironic that only a handful of the company's 88,000 employees knew about the project. When some of them caught wind of it, they leaked the story to an online news site, The Intercept, which broke the news and put Google's top brass on the spot.

Google has ventured into China before but eventually left in 2010 because it couldn't live with the censorship rules. There was a time when Google's corporate slogan was '"don't be evil". That altruistic philosophy has since been amended from its code of conduct to "do the right thing".

Nowadays in China, "doing the right thing is about trading off to lesser evils," explains Yuan Yang, Beijing economy and technology correspondent for the Financial Times.

"Chinese friends actually many of them are hopeful that they can use Google in China because they would like there to be an alternative to the near-monopolist which is Baidu. It would be a really interesting scene if there were two big search engines in China duking it out rather than one big search engine in China."

Under President Xi Jinping, internet censorship has gotten even tighter. So any kind of censorship deal that Google can strike with the government now would be much worse than what Google could do back in 2010 ... How much can you criticise a government whose permission you need to operate in their markets?

Yuan Yang, Beijing economy and tech correspondent, Financial Times

Google's decision to reverse its stance on operating in China is "a stunning turnaround," says Ryan Gallagher, Investigative Journalist at The Intercept, "because in China, nothing has changed. In fact, it's probably got worse in terms of the censorship. The laws that are in place that oversee these things have become a lot more draconian in that eight-year period. So for Google to say it's going to go back in, it's an extraordinary story."

Those monitoring online freedoms worry that Google's return would have dangerous real-world consequences, perhaps accelerating a great new wave of online restrictions in China and elsewhere.

"The legitimate concern that people have, that if Google goes into China, that it's legitimising China's censorship regime," points out Ann Lee, economist at New York University. "If citizens are concerned about corporations becoming too powerful and becoming like nation states, then they should actually be asking the lawmakers to pass laws that require corporations above a certain revenue line to have, a different way of responding to public inquiries."

Should Google succeed in getting back into China, it stands to gain access to more than three-quarters of a billion people online. But the company's competition there is way out in front. In Google's eight-year absence, Baidu, a Chinese search engine, has solidified its position and now has more than 75 percent of that market.

So even if Google manages to clear the political hurdles currently standing in its way, it will have a lot of catching up to do.

Contributors
Ryan Gallagher - Investigative journalist, The Intercept
Yuan Yang - Beijing economy and technology correspondent, Financial Times
Siva Vaidhyanathan - Professor of modern media studies, University of Virginia
Ann Lee - Economist, New York University

Source: Al Jazeera