Internet giant Google is working on a version of its search engine that will comply with Chinese government censorship requirements, according to The Intercept.
The new search engine will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest, the news site reported.
The company has been working on the project since the spring of 2017, and fast-tracked it following a meeting between Google CEO Sundar Pichai and a high-ranking government official last December, the report said.
"Teams of programmers and engineers at Google have created a custom Android app [that] has already been demonstrated to the Chinese government," the report said.
Google left China in 2010 after a showdown with China's ruling Communist Party over internet censorship, and currently redirects Chinese language users from the mainland to a search site run from its Hong Kong-based servers.
China has blocked access to Google search, YouTube, and Picasa photographs continually since 2009, according to Google's Transparency Report.
The country's complex network of blocks, filters and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall already ensures that popular foreign websites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are hard to access for the majority of Chinese users.
Government censors currently prevent keyword searches linked to politically sensitive topics, including the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, dissidents and any form of political opposition.
The proposed new Google app will comply with current restrictions, removing banned websites from the first page of results.
Examples cited by The Intercept based on confidential leaked Google documents include U.K. public broadcaster the BBC and the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia.
For some blacklisted queries, no results will be shown at all, and the blacklists will extend to image searches, spell checks and search suggestions, the report said.
'Attack on freedom'
Patrick Poon, a Hong Kong-based researcher with London-based rights group Amnesty International, called the news "a dark day for internet freedom."
"For the world’s biggest search engine to adopt such extreme measures would be a gross attack on freedom of information and internet freedom," Poon said in a statement on Amnesty International's website.
"In putting profits before human rights, Google would be setting a chilling precedent and handing the Chinese government a victory," he said.
"It is impossible to see how such a move is compatible with Google’s ... motto, and we are calling on the company to change course," he said.
Poon also asked whether Google would hand over personal data to the authorities if requested, potentially putting peaceful critics of the government at risk.
In an interview with RFA, he reminded the company that it had left China in 2010 in order to get away from censorship.
"And now they seem to be deserting their former principles in order to get a foothold in the China market," Poon said. "I really think they should reconsider this decision."
The Intercept said Google's renewed interest in China had been led by Pichai, who became CEO in October 2015. It cited sources as saying that Pichai had met with Wang Huning, Chinese President Xi Jinping's right-hand man and policy adviser, during a visit to China in December 2017.
However, a report in China's Securities Daily newspaper quoted official sources as denying the report that Google is planning to return to China.
The paper also quoted analysts as saying that such a move would be unlikely in the current international context, a possible reference to the trade war with the United States.
An employee who answered the phone at Google's Beijing office on Thursday said they had received no information of any new products aimed at the China market.
"We haven't received any notification of new products here," the employee said. "All of our existing products are running normally."
No public listing was available for the Cyberspace Administration of China.
Sang Young, an information security expert at the Hong Kong Internet Society, said Google would have no problem meeting China's requirements.
"It's pretty simple; you just load in the keywords [you want to ban] ... they could even enable China to enter those keywords directly," Young said. "Then they just ensure that results relating to the keywords provided by China don't show up in search results."
"I would imagine China has already provided them with a list of those keywords."
An internet user in the southern province of Guangdong surnamed Fan told RFA that Google had clearly been swayed by the sheer size of the potential China market.
"There are more than a billion people in China, and more internet users here than anywhere else in the world," he said. "I am guessing that they don't want to relinquish such a huge market."
But Fan said Google wouldn't be offering unfettered searches to those internet users, as it had done in the past.
"From the point of view of Chinese internet users, it'll be no different from Baidu; there'll just be one more of them," he said, in a reference to China's homegrown, censored search engine.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.