AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Google was once criticized for running a censored version of its search engine in China, at one point being taken to task by lawmakers in hearings on Capitol Hill. Here's tape from New Jersey Representative Chris Smith in 2006.
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CHRIS SMITH: It is hard not to draw the conclusion that Google has seriously compromised its don't-be-evil policy. Indeed it has become evil's accomplice, and hopefully that will change.
CORNISH: By 2010, Google had pulled out of China. But now it's reportedly planning to release a search app for Chinese users that again conforms to Chinese censorship laws. That's according to internal documents leaked to The Intercept and published earlier this week. To tell us more about these plans and why Google has reversed its approach to China we have Ryan Gallagher. He's the Intercept reporter who broke the story. Welcome to the program.
RYAN GALLAGHER: Hi there. Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: So to start, what exactly do these documents say that Google is planning to roll out?
GALLAGHER: OK, so the idea is that Google has been developing a specific customized Chinese version of Google search that will comply with the ruling Communist Party regime and China's very strict censorship controls of information about, you know, opposition politicians, about democracy, about human rights, even academic works that contain, you know, analysis that's unfavorable to the government. That kind of thing is widely blocked. And so Google's censored version in China would have to comply with that. And that's what they've been planning to launch.
CORNISH: As we mentioned earlier, Google hasn't been in China for nearly a decade. So help us understand. What was the reason why it withdrew in the first place, and what's changed?
GALLAGHER: Well, you heard in your - the introduction the heat that Google was taking was just so extreme that I think the company was just - ultimately it just - it decided it couldn't go on with this any longer. Actually, one of Google's co-founders, Sergey Brin, he was one of the ones who at top of Google at the time was so uncomfortable with complying with the censorship.
He had grown up as a child in the Soviet Union, and he knew what it was like to kind of live under that kind of repression. And he was one of the strong voices at the time arguing they should not be doing this. And so eight years on things have changed again dramatically, and they've gone back the other way. And partly that is due to a change in leadership at Google.
CORNISH: And that change in leadership, what do they see as, you know, what they have to gain in bringing Google to China?
GALLAGHER: Sundar Pichai, who's the CEO now of Google, he wants to get back into China. It's an absolutely massive, massive kind of market for an Internet company. There are, like, 750 million Internet users in China. That's more than the population of the whole continent of Europe. There's a cost to it for Google because they have to kind of compromise their values. They've always claimed to be a company that believes in sort of the open access to information and that kind of thing. And obviously introducing a censored search engine that is deliberately manipulating and blocking out set information - you know, that undermines Google's claim to believe in these values.
CORNISH: If a company this big succumbs to the demands required to have access to China's market, what are the implications for the U.S. tech industry?
GALLAGHER: I think that it kind of - it does in a certain way set a precedent, you know, because Google is so influential that other companies actually might politically feel more comfortable going in if a company of Google's standing decided that it was going to. So from an Internet freedom, from an open access to information, from a pro-democracy perspective it would be quite negative. And I think that it wouldn't just be a thing that could impact U.S. companies' decision-making. It could also impact European companies, other Asian companies, even companies currently operating within China who are perhaps trying to be a bit more resistant to some of the government's censorship demands.
CORNISH: Ryan Gallagher of The Intercept, thanks for speaking with us.
GALLAGHER: Thanks so much for having me on, appreciate it.
CORNISH: All right, NPR Shanghai correspondent Rob Schmitz is here. He's spent a lot of time in China. He joins us now to talk a little bit more. Welcome to the studio, Rob.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So is this really a surprise, Google making this move?
SCHMITZ: I think that it's not a surprise for those of us watching this landscape because we've seen Google's CEO come to China in the last year. He attended the World Internet Conference, which is this annual conference in eastern China. And, you know, these are conferences that are set up to try and legitimize China's version of the Internet underneath or behind their Great Firewall of censorship inside China.
CORNISH: You mentioned the Great Firewall. Explain what that is. What is it like to use the Internet in China? What kind of access, for instance, do they have to Google?
SCHMITZ: So as someone who is non-Chinese, it is very frustrating to use the Internet in China because you'll go on the Internet; you'll go on a browser, and you'll type in maybe one of the many websites that you usually visit. What are some of the websites that usually visit on the Internet, Audie?
CORNISH: Well, a lot of news sites for one (laughter).
SCHMITZ: Exactly, OK, so in China, those news sites won't be available. They - you'll type in perhaps The New York Times, and you will get an error message. Or it'll sit there, and it'll think for a while, and nothing will happen because it's blocked inside of China. If you want to go to Gmail, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube, any of these sites that we use on a daily basis, all of those are blocked in China. And so for those of us from outside of China inside of China, we use virtual private networks, otherwise known as VPNs, to climb over the Great Firewall and use the Internet there.
CORNISH: Has government censorship increased or decreased since, you know, 2010 or so when Google left China?
SCHMITZ: It's increased. It's gotten worse. China has instituted a lot of laws that make it an offence to post information that it deems inaccurate or sensitive. If it's reposted many times, you could go to jail. And so that's meant for many people - they have to be very careful about this. Everyone in China knows this. And that's led to the decrease of use of a platform like Weibo, which is like Twitter, which used to be one of the largest social media networks inside of China. Tens of millions of users have left Weibo in favor of WeChat, which is a much more private interface social media network inside of China that's much more like Facebook where you're only sharing information among your friends. You can't have as much impact when you post something on the Internet that way.
CORNISH: Who really benefits here? Like, what does China have to gain from embracing Google in this way and the other way around?
SCHMITZ: Well, when you're talking about China, there's always two Chinas. There's the government and the Communist Party, and then there's the People of China. The Communist Party of China I think benefits greatly by having its Internet regime legitimized by a company that has always stood for the free flow of information and free access to information. When you talk about the people of China, I'm not really sure if they benefit at all from this because they already have a censored Internet search engine, Baidu.
And I think when you talk about what Google means to us as Americans, as an American company, it's served an ideal for us, this open access to information. You know, we're able to get whatever we want to find. Google's mission statement from its website - to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. Now, if Google ends up in China's market with a censored search engine, I can't see how they don't violate this mission statement unless they have a separate mission statement for China.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz, our Shanghai correspondent. Rob, thank you for talking with us.
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CORNISH: We also want to note that we reached out to Google for comment on this story. A company spokesperson responded that Google provides a number of mobile apps in China, helps Chinese developers and has made significant investments in Chinese companies but said, quote, "we don't comment on speculation about future plans."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.