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A Google VP Told The US Senate The Company Has “Terminated” The Chinese Search App Dragonfly

But Karan Bhatia did not explicitly rule out working on tools for China in the future.

Posted on July 16, 2019, at 7:13 p.m. ET

BuzzFeed News / Getty

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, Google’s vice president of public policy, Karan Bhatia, said that the tech giant’s much-criticized effort to launch a search engine in China had been abandoned.

“We have terminated Project Dragonfly,” Bhatia said of the controversial search app for the Chinese market that Google had reportedly been working on last year. He was responding to a series of questions from Republican Sen. Josh Hawley about Google’s business with China.

Bhatia’s statement is the first public mention that Project Dragonfly has been “terminated,” although Google said in response to questions from BuzzFeed News that Karan’s comments did not reflect a new development. A company spokesperson pointed to its statement in a March 2019 story published in the Verge: “As we’ve said for many months, we have no plans to launch Search in China and there is no work being undertaken on such a project. Team members have moved to new projects.”

When asked whether “terminated” meant Google would not launch a censored search app in China in the future, the spokesperson said, “We have no plans to launch Search in China and there is no work being undertaken on such a project.”

Most Google employees only learned of the secretive program when the Intercept published a report about the code-named project in August. Leaked information about the project prompted a backlash from the company’s rank and file — and it wasn’t the first instance of discord within Google over a government contract.

After the tech giant’s contract with the Pentagon’s Project Maven was revealed in March, over 4,000 employees signed a petition asking the company to cancel the effort. A dozen engineers resigned, leading Google to promise not to renew the contract. Last year, hundreds of Google workers signed their names to a letter demanding more transparency about whether their work was being used ethically, and a new letter circulated in November demanding that Google drop Dragonfly — which got hundreds of signatures from Googlers using their real names.

It's always a fascinating semantic question. The right way to answer that is to actually ask where the headcount went after the cancellation...

Still, many Googlers are wary of the possibility that the company is still doing covert R&D work on the project. In December, when Google CEO Sundar Pichai appeared before Congress at another hearing, he said the Dragonfly effort was “limited” and “currently an internal effort,” but did not explicitly commit to ruling out working on tools for China in the future.

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    Davey Alba is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. While working for BuzzFeed News, she won the 2019 Livingston Award for international reporting.

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A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.