Even as China’s persecution of over one million Uighurs gained international attention, its tightened surveillance and censorship apparatus suffered a major blow.

In August 2018, Ryan Gallagher of The Intercept wrote revealed how Google was involved in creating a search engine that would censor results called Project Dragonfly in China. Following global outrage and internal resistance, the project was put on hold. It was believed to be complicit with the tight censorship laws in China and aimed at becoming an intrusive programme for mandatory online surveillance.

Project Dragonfly was built on the template of restricting freedom of speech within a totalitarian censored environment, and giving the government intrusive access to citizens’ private online activity.

Along with Google employees, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also vociferously criticized the project. Members of Free Tibet (John Jones), Students for a Free Tibet (Dorjee Tseten), SumOfUs (Sondhya Gupta), Tibet Action Institute (Lobsang Gyatso) and International Tibet network (Sarah Brooks) also played a pivotal role in creating awareness and action against the search engine venture. Other well known activists like Edward Snowden and Lokman Tsui (a former ‘head of expression’ at Google) have publicly criticised Project Dragonfly.

At present websites like Google and Gmail, the BBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Wikipedia are blocked in China. Topics like political opposition, academic studies, sex, religion, free speech are also blocked. Books such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm cannot be accessed.

For the country’s 750 million internet users, the situation has worsened since 2016 when a new cyber-security law was passed in China that strengthened censorship and the surveillance apparatus of the state.

Project Dragonfly gained fruition under the leadership of Google’s chief executive Sundar Pichai, who visited China in December 2017 to meet with Wang Huning, a leading politician in the Chinese Communist Party. The project aimed at linking the search engines used by Chinese citizens, along with their queries and their personal phone numbers. This private data would be stored in data centres in Beijing and Shanghai.

It is less well known that Project Dragonfly was a joint venture with another Chinese company. The identity, business model and location of this other company remain secret. Work related to the project was mainly carried out at Google’s Mountain View headquarters in Silicon Valley.

Project Dragonfly, which was begun in the spring of 2017, had already launched two app versions - Maotai and Longfei - but the escalating trade war between the United States and China created delays.

As of now, Google says the data analysis system which was used to feed the project has been terminated, and the access needed for user data integral to the project has been suspended.

The project suffered its first setback last November, when 1400 Google employees signed a letter against it, citing its contravention of the moral and ethical values Google claims to follow. According to reports only a hundred or so of Google’s 80,000 employees had knowledge of the project.

It also seems that a full privacy review of Project Dragonfly was never carried out within the company. Jack Poulson, a former Google research scientist, resigned from the company to protest against the censored search engine and now works in solidarity with Uighur, Tibetan and Chinese human rights groups.

This is not the first time Google has tried to enter the Chinese internet market. Back in 2006 it created a Chinese search engine, google.cn, which was later terminated due to the high number of cyber attacks on activists, and because it challenged the ethics policy of the company. After the advent of Sundar Pichai in 2015, Google once again started evaluating China’s lucrative internet market under its policy of ‘Google is for everyone’.

Around 700 Google employees were working in China when Project Dragonfly got underway. The company has three offices in China, aimed at developing ‘alternative projects’. It launched an interactive game based on artificial intelligence within WeChat, the country’s most popular social media app. Last January, with its own search engine banned in China, Google invested $120 million in the livestreaming platform Chushou.

Thus, even though Google says that Project Dragonfly has been terminated, there is reason to question the claim. Dave Lee, a technology reporter at the BBC, said that China is a very lucrative market and Google’s ambition has only been stalled.

Patrick Poon, a researcher based in Hong Kong, said that Project Dragonfly had been the biggest disaster for the information age. He also worried it would set a precedent for more such ventures in other totalitarian regimes, making it impossible to question censorship online.

Google has declined to comment, beyond stating that Project Dragonfly has been shut down. Meanwhile, rising tensions between the US and China may also act as a further impediment. Google has already been warned by some American congressmen and senators that any form of compliance with the Chinese surveillance apparatus would go against ‘American values’.