The data collected from 265.com provided the groundwork for Google's secret, Chinese censorship-friendly, mobile search app.
The data collected from 265.com provided the groundwork for Google’s secret, Chinese censorship-friendly, mobile search app.

Image: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

More information is leaking out about just how Google is planning to re-enter the Chinese market with a mobile search engine application that complies to the country’s censorship laws.

The Intercept first broke this story when a whistleblower provided them documentation detailing the secret censored search project (codenamed Dragonfly). According to them, an overlooked Google acquisition from 2008 — 265.com — has been quietly laying down the foundation for the endeavor. 

Back in June of 2008, Google acquired the Chinese website 265.com, which Chinese internet entrepreneur Cai Wensheng, known as “King of the Webmasters,” founded in 2003. Cai is the current chairman and founder of the company behind the popular selfie app Meitu. As an early domain name investor, Cai “found it frustrating to have to type domain names in English,” according to a 2010 Wall Street Journal profile. So he set up what amounts to an early-internet web directory, or daohang — which roughly translates to navigation — as they’re known in China. His internet portal, 265.com, which provided Chinese internet users with a list of popular website links right on its homepage, was an instant success. 

A screengrab of 265.com as it looks as of August 2018

A screengrab of 265.com as it looks as of August 2018

With the success of websites like 265.com and China’s search giant Baidu operating its own web directory with its acquisition of Hao123.com, Google launched Google Daohang in March 2007. Just a few months later, rumors spread that Google had acquired 265.com. At the time, Google and Cai denied the acquisition, but they did admit the two parties have a business relationship. Cai’s 265.com was powering its search function with Google search ads.

In June 2008, a year following the acquisition rumors, Cai sold 265.com to Google for an undisclosed sum. Ten years later, the data Google has been collecting from Chinese users’ searches on 265.com is being used as the framework for the Chinese censorship-friendly search project they started developing last year. (Google currently doesn’t run a search engine in China, so the data is sent to Baidu to render the actual search query results.)

According to documents, Google’s engineers are using this data to develop a list of websites blocked in China in order to provide the most relevant, non-blocked search results for queries in its new search app. There’s reportedly already a working, functional version of this censored search app.

It’s important to note that when Google acquired 265.com in 2008, they were still operating their search engine in China, which launched in 2006. The company would continue operating the Google.cn website for another 2 years. Citing the country’s censorship and speech laws, Google pulled their search operations from the country in 2010.

But Google never really left China. Even after closing down its Chinese search engine at the beginning of the decade, Google still, 265.com aside, publicly maintained a Chinese presence. The company mainly ran an ad operation for companies in China looking to advertise globally, as well as developing advertising-related products.

In order to run a business in China, tech companies are required to obtain a Internet Content Provider license from the Chinese government. As it’s difficult for foreign businesses to obtain this license, Google has long partnered with Chinese IT company Ganji.com. Back in the early years of Google.cn, Google actually operated directly off of Ganji.com’s license, even claiming the Chinese company was temporarily running its search engine. Facing intense scrutiny from the Chinese government and the media over this license arrangement, in 2007 Google formed a legitimate joint venture company with Ganji.com — the Beijing Guxiang Information and Technology Co.

Because of the necessity of that license, Google has maintained that joint venture and has been operating in China under the name Beijing Guxiang Information and Technology Co. ever since. Even after the shut down of Google.cn, Google’s Chinese advertising enterprise has been operating under the joint venture company as well as, low and behold, 265.com. A whois search of the 265.com domain name, which provides a record of the current domain registrant information, pulls up Beijing Guxiang Information and Technology Co. as the registrant organization.

A significant number of Google employees are reportedly none too happy about Google’s project complying with Chinese censorship laws. This most recent news, that the company has long been collecting data for a moment just like this, surely won’t make morale among these workers any better.

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