Google executives admitted for the first time this week that they’re looking to get their search engine up and running in China after a hiatus of almost a decade. At the company’s weekly all-staff meeting, the project was discussed by co-founder Sergey Brin — the very executive most closely associated with the decision in 2010 to pull out of China. It was a widely lauded move by Google managers, led by Brin, who argued that they’d rather leave than subject their search tool to China’s stringent rules that filter out politically sensitive results, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
The change of heart is also the clearest sign yet that some Googlers view the pullout as a costly miscalculation. That’s locked the company out of what is now the largest internet market, where hundreds of millions of people use homegrown services from Baidu Inc, Tencent Holdings Ltd, Meituan Dianping and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd to search, communicate, order food and shop online. Other US technology companies stayed in China and have tried to influence the government from the inside, rather than disengaging. Apple Inc, one of the few US tech giants with a thriving Chinese business, is now worth $1 trillion – a crown Google parent Alphabet Inc might have captured first if it had an equivalent operation in the world’s most populous country. Mozilla, a progressive organization that’s no fan of censorship, has operated a version of its Firefox browser in China for more than a decade, preferring to adapt its approach rather than leave.
Priyendra Deshwal, a software engineer who worked on Google search projects from 2007 to 2012, said there was internal debate about the decision in 2010. He recalled a meeting where co-founders Larry Page and Brin answered employee questions about China, with Brin taking the lead. It wasn’t obvious to rank-and-file Googlers that the company should give up on the country.
“We could see both sides of the coin,” Deshwal said. “There was debate in the sense of it being a very big business opportunity lost, but also an example of the company standing by its principles.”
Page and Brin presented the move as a clear example of Google’s “don’t be evil” motto, Deshwal added. “At that time, the company made the decision based on principles and not wanting to operate where it didn’t agree with the way the country was run.”