Google scrambled to get employees to delete an internal memo about censored search in China: report

Technology

Google scrambled to delete an internal memo circulating among employees with details about its proposed censored search app for China that showed that plans were farther along than company executives had previously indicated, The Intercept reports.

The memo, written by a Google engineer who was asked to work on the product, started circulating earlier this month, before human resources contacted employees believed to have read or saved it, and told them to immediately delete any copies. The document reportedly highlighted that information about the project on internal company networks seemed to contradict recent comments from Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

“We are not close to launching a search product in China and whether we would do so or could so so is all very unclear,” Pichai said at an internal all-hands meeting in mid-August, according to a transcript obtained by CNBC. “But the team has been in an exploration stage for quite a while now, and I think they are exploring many options.”

However, the memo indicated that employees working on the project were told in late July to prepare to get it in “launch-ready state” to roll out upon approval from Beijing officials, according to The Intercept.

Google initially withdrew its search service from China in 2010 due to increased concerns about censorship and cyber attacks, subsequently losing access to the enormous market of 772 million internet users there. The new censored search app, first revealed by The Intercept, would remove content that the Chinese government ruled sensitive and would link users’ searches to their personal phone numbers.

Since news about the app first broke in early August, people inside and outside the company have expressed concern. Human rights groups have called on Google to cancel its plans and hundreds of Google employees signed a letter saying that the reported plans raised “urgent moral and ethical issues” and calling for more transparency.

The author of the reported made a similar rebuke about how few employees knew about the project before the press leaks: “more than the project itself, I hate the culture of secrecy that has been built around it,” they wrote.

In the mid-August all-hands meeting, Pichai defended how Google kept the project confidential, because “being fully transparent at that [exploratory] stage can cause issues.” He added that around censored search in China, the team would “definitely be transparent as we get closer to actually having a plan of record here.”

A Google spokesperson added that Google brings upcoming product launches to employees as early as possible, but that there are some projects that require early confidentially to avoid scrutiny before they’re ready for prime time.

In regards to the company’s China plans, a Google spokesperson reiterated Pichai’s comments:

We’ve been investing for many years to help Chinese users, from developing Android, through mobile apps such as Google Translate and Files Go, and our developer tools. But our work on search has been exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China.

Read the rest of The Intercept report here.