NEW YORK—Google’s reported development of a censored search engine for China evinces a troubling capitulation to China’s restrictions on free speech and access to information, PEN America said today.

On August 1, The Intercept reported, drawing from internal documents and interviews with anonymous Google employees, that Google was developing a censored version of its search engine for use in China. The Intercept reports that the censored engine will filter out search terms and results that are blacklisted by the Chinese government, to include specific websites and terms related to human rights, democracy, and peaceful protest. The app has reportedly already been demonstrated to Chinese officials, and Google will operate the censored app as a joint venture with an unnamed partner company, which will presumably be based in China.

The Chinese government maintains an extensive system of censorship and control over the Internet within its borders, a system often referred to as “The Great Firewall.” Government regulators impose a broad and constantly-updated set of restrictions on internet service providers, blocking a broad array websites and search terms.

“Given that Google has long prided itself on its informal motto, ‘Don’t be evil,’ it’s impossible to believe that Google is living up to its values with this decision,” said Summer Lopez, Senior Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America. “Google needs to understand the significance of their choice. If they move forward with this censored search engine, they will become an active partner in the largest system of online censorship in the world, and be complicit in the silencing of dissent and independent voices in China.”

Earlier this year, the news that Apple would partner with a government-linked Chinese company to manage storage of Chinese user data raised concerns that the government was being given back-door access to private data.  

PEN America’s March 2018, Forbidden Feeds: Government Controls on Social Media in China, outlines how China’s digital censorship regime relies on conscripting digital services providers to censor their own users, and how regulators constantly impose new censorship obligations. The report concludes that compliance with Chinese censorship laws, posited as a condition of entry to the market, would represent “complicity” with the government’s efforts to silence dissent, running “directly counter to the[ir] professed values and mission statements.” PEN America recommends that all foreign technology companies “Refrain from doing business in the Chinese market unless and until you have secured an agreement with the government that the company will not be obligated to enforce Chinese laws and regulations related to censorship, or to otherwise violate China-based customers’ rights to privacy, free expression, access to information, or related rights.” 

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org

CONTACT: 

Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Manager: agasparian@pen.org