“We have to be focused on what we want to enable,” said Ben Gomes, Google’s search engine chief. “And then when the opening happens, we are ready for it.”
It was Wednesday, July 18, and Gomes was addressing a team of Google employees who were working on a secretive project to develop a censored search engine for China, which would blacklist phrases like “human rights,” “student protest,” and “Nobel Prize.”
“You have taken on something extremely important to the company,” Gomes declared, according to a transcript of his comments obtained by The Intercept. “I have to admit it has been a difficult journey. But I do think a very important and worthwhile one. And I wish ourselves the best of luck in actually reaching our destination as soon as possible.”
Gomes joked about the unpredictability of President Donald Trump and groaned about the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China, which has slowed down Google’s negotiations with Communist Party officials in Beijing, whose approval Google requires to launch the censored search engine.
Gomes, who joined Google in 1999 and is one of the key engineers behind the company’s search engine, said he hoped the censored Chinese version of the platform could be launched within six and nine months, but it could be sooner. “This is a world none of us have ever lived in before,” he said. “So I feel like we shouldn’t put too much definite into the timeline.”
It has been two months since The Intercept first revealed details about the censored search engine, code-named Dragonfly. Since then, the project has faced a wave of criticism from human rights groups, Google employees, U.S. senators, and even Vice President Mike Pence, who on Thursday last week called on Google to “immediately end development of the Dragonfly app that will strengthen the Communist Party’s censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers.”
Google has refused to answer questions or concerns about Dragonfly. On Sept. 26, a Google executive faced public questions on the censorship plan for the first time. Keith Enright told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that there “is a Project Dragonfly,” but said “we are not close to launching a product in China.” When pressed to give specific details, Enright refused, saying that he was “not clear on the contours of what is in scope or out of scope for that project.”
Senior executives at Google directly involved in building the censorship system have largely avoided any public scrutiny. But on Sept. 23, Gomes briefly addressed Dragonfly when confronted by a BBC reporter at an event celebrating Google’s 20th anniversary.
“Right now, all we’ve done is some exploration,” Gomes told the reporter, “but since we don’t have any plans to launch something, there’s nothing much I can say about it.”
Gomes’ statement kept with the company’s official line. But it flatly contradicted what he had privately told Google employees who were working on Dragonfly — which disturbed some of them. One Google source told The Intercept Gomes’s comments to the BBC were “bullshit.”
One Google source said Gomes’s comments to the BBC were “bullshit.”
In July, Gomes had informed employees that the plan was to launch the search engine as soon as possible — and to get it ready to be “brought off the shelf and quickly deployed” once approval from Beijing was received.
Gomes’s remarks to staff, which can be read in full below, highlight the stark contrast between Google’s public and private statements about Dragonfly. The secretive project has been underway since spring 2017 — and has involved about 300 employees, the majority of whom have worked full-time on the plan. It was far beyond an “exploration,” and the plan to launch it was well-developed, as some of Google’s own employees have themselves highlighted in recent weeks, despite the company’s efforts to suppress such information.
Gomes’s remarks also shed light on why Google is interested in returning its search engine to China after a noisy departure in 2010, when the company announced that it “could no longer continue censoring our results” there due to concerns over free speech and security. In explaining to staff why the work on Dragonfly was “extremely important,” Gomes referenced the sheer size of the Chinese market, saying “we are talking about the next billion users” for Google. He also called China “the most interesting market in the world today.” “By virtue of working on this,” Gomes added, “you will act as a window onto this world of innovation that we are otherwise blind to.”
Engineers working on the censored search engine are continuing to actively develop it.
Since Gomes offered this optimistic take, the public exposure of Dragonfly and the backlash that has ensued both internally and externally appears to have unsettled Google’s leadership, and it has created a degree of uncertainty around the direction of the plan. However, according to sources with knowledge of Dragonfly, engineers working on the censored search engine, acting on instructions from management, are continuing to actively develop it.
The Intercept contacted Gomes for comment but he did not answer requests sent by email and text message. Reached twice on his cellphone on Saturday, Gomes claimed when asked about Dragonfly that he had a bad line. “I can’t hear anything that you are saying, I can just hear that you are talking,” he said, and swiftly hung up the phone.
“I think this has been a long haul for many of you, I just want to acknowledge that first of all. Many of you have started working on this a while back. It’s not been easy working on a project with no obvious outcome. Thank you for that. In doing so you have taken on something extremely important to the company — our basic mission of serving all of the world’s users. Along the way, I think there are many benefits that come to us that are auxiliary, not just from the direct work, but from all of the auxiliary things of working in China.
There are two ways in which I think about Google. One of them is technology and the other one is product and serving users. So from the point of view of serving users, there is no question — we are talking about the next billion users. But actually I was looking at it, there’s like 5 billion adults in the world, so why are we thinking about the next billion users? Well, some of them are not enabled, internet-enabled, and so on. And of the people who are internet-enabled, a huge fraction of the ones we are missing out are in China.
And so the opportunity there is — all of you will know this, but — it’s clearly the biggest opportunity to serve more people that we have. And if you take our mission seriously, that’s where our key focus should be. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. Many of these things are not easy, and you all know this now from personal experience. Also given the political climate. The future is very unpredictable. Six to nine months [to launch]. But we couldn’t have predicted the last three days of politics, let alone the last year of politics, [or] the last two or three years of politics. So we just don’t know what the future holds in some ways. We have to be focused on what we want to enable, and then when the opening happens we are ready for it.
“It’s clearly the biggest opportunity to serve more people that we have. And if you take our mission seriously, that’s where our key focus should be.”
And you guys have been working in that capacity and it’s not easy. We are working with you to make sure your careers are not affected by this. The difficult part is to maintain motivation on such a long haul. But that’s true of many difficult and worthwhile journeys. To maintain that motivation along the way, so that when you do reach that goal, it’s all the sweeter. I also want to say — I didn’t expect we’d be able to make the changes from a search perspective that we’ve been able to. So I think there’s a slide on this? There are improvements, and I thought that because we didn’t have all the signals from China, I thought we may make marginal progress and we’ll do our best. But you guys … this is really pretty amazing to me that we made this much progress. … When you begin to pay attention to things, things really do get a lot better, and the coverage, the improvements the team has made, I am so grateful for the work you have put in.
The second part of what I think we do that is the value of going into China, is that China I think is one of the most interesting markets, arguably the most interesting market in the world today. Just by virtue of being there and paying attention to the Chinese market, we will learn things, because in many ways China was leading the world in some kinds of innovation. We need to understand what is happening there in order to inspire us. It’s not just a one-way street. China will teach us things that we don’t know. And the people, as you work on this, both in the Chinese offices and elsewhere, paying attention to the things that are happening there is incredibly valuable for us as Google, potentially not just in China, but somewhere else entirely.
Everybody is aware of some of the key models, business models, that have changed in China. But I am sure there are more, other innovations we are not aware of today. And by virtue of working on this, you will act as a window onto this world of innovation that we are otherwise blind to. So overall I just want to thank you guys for all the work you have put in. I ask for your patience for continuing on this for a while longer. And I have to admit it has been a difficult journey. But I do think a very important and worthwhile one. And I wish ourselves the best of luck in actually reaching our destination as soon as possible.
While we are saying it’s going to be six and nine months [to launch], the world is a very dynamic place. A few weeks back, nobody would have predicted that the U.S. president would blame the U.S. for issues with Russia, and the Russian foreign ministry would respond [on] Twitter saying, “We agree.” And so the good or bad thing about this is, he’s shaken things up so much that things can radically change quickly. So at some level, at our scale, we need to maintain that optionality, in case suddenly the world changes or he decides his new best friend is [Chinese President] Xi Jinping. This is a world none of us have ever lived in before. So I feel like we shouldn’t put too much definite into the timeline too.
All I am saying, we have built a set of hacks and we have kept them. If there is a way to sort of freeze some of it, so it can be brought off the shelf and quickly deployed while we are dripping it all out, and changing it, we should take the long-term view. The pace of the world is changing. There is a huge binary difference between being launched and not launched. And so we want to be careful that we don’t miss that window if it ever comes.”