How times have changed. Back in 2010, things were very different. When the Chinese government targeted the Gmail accounts of prominent human rights defenders in the country, Google responded forcefully. Instead of complying with government demands, the company (which adhered to the philosophy “don’t be evil”), simply left.

Fast forward 9 years later, and the picture has changed. In March 2019, we learned that Google had agreed with Beijing to police adverts for Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) on its products – a dream scenario for the technicians who man the Great Firewall.

How did we get to the stage where a company that was once a bastion of principle and morality, is now working hand in glove with a repressive government to limit online freedom? What does this mean for Chinese VPN users? Let’s find out.

How Google came to be on the wrong side of history in China

The warning signs started flashing in 2018. As the New York Times reported, Alphabet (now Google’s parent company) was looking to get back into the Chinese market. Stymied by stagnant growth elsewhere, the company saw capturing Chinese traffic as the only viable long term strategy. But to achieve this, it would have to trade away certain principles.

According to the Times, Google engineers had started working with officials in China to produce a censored version of the worldwide search engine. Potentially, this could lead to Facebook, Twitter, and even the Times itself being off limits to Chinese searchers.

That was bad enough, but things got worse in March 2019.

The tech press reported that Google had commenced an even deeper collaboration with Beijing’s censors, sifting ads for content that included Virtual Private Networks. Apparently, this was a long-standing (but unannounced) policy, in compliance with Chinese VPN laws.

And that’s probably true. In 2017, Chinese censors targeted VPNs, demanding that they submit to inspections and authorization. If VPNs weren’t approved and entered onto an official register, using them in China became technically illegal. In 2018, the state clamped down further, instituting strict prohibitions on Virtual Private Network usage.

Google’s ban doesn’t apply to search results (which are technically prohibited anyway in China). Instead, it applies to the way the company supplies ads to other websites which aren’t banned. Google may be banned from delivering search services in China, but it isn’t blocked from carrying out web analytics or selling banner ads to third parties. That service is what the new ban seeks to limit.

And Google seems happy to do so. Policing those rules is a price Google is content to pay for the profits obtained in the Chinese market.

How does this fit into the Dragonfly project?

If Google was only engaged in blocking ads for VPNs, it might be understandable, if unfortunate. After all, the company could still claim to be opening up the digital realm in China, by providing an uncensored search tool to liberate information.

Sadly, the existence of the “Dragonfly” project squashes that myth. As we mentioned earlier, Google has been working on a top secret search engine specifically designed with China in mind, and Dragonfly was the codename that managers chose.

When news broke about the Chinese project in 2018, the company rushed to assure users, employees, and markets that it hadn’t been implemented, and may well be abandoned. But, as journalists reported in early 2019, this is far from the case.

Dragonfly code has continued to be updated, despite statements to the contrary, while Google CEO Sundar Pichai has not explicitly stated that the project has been terminated. Moreover, the company’s budget still sets aside resources for a 100-strong Dragonfly team, even as human rights activists seek to increase the pressure on the search engine to pull out.

The VPN ad ban could be another instance where work on Dragonfly has simply been submerged and concealed, rather than carried out in plain sight. Stung by the exposure of its collaboration with Beijing, Google has moved its activities “below the radar,” creating a situation where Dragonfly can be implemented in stages, as the situation develops.

So the company has gone from a principled objection to being “evil,” to perfecting the art of hiding cooperation with regimes that could be complicit in massive concentration camps, devastating pollution, and all-round surveillance – the likes of which we’ve never seen.

What does the Google VPN ad ban mean for travelers and Chinese web users?

This is the wider question that needs to be answered. VPNs have become an essential tool among Chinese web users in recent years (and in countries across the world). And there are a number of reasons for this.

Most importantly in the Chinese context, the state operates its “Great Firewall,” which seeks to create a virtual barrier between China’s internet and the wider world. This was created in an attempt to quarantine the minds of Chinese users against ideas circulating around the globe, including equality, freedom of information, and the importance of human rights.

VPNs potentially provide a solution. By encrypting user data and routing it through servers located around the world, these tools can anonymize the identity of Chinese users, fooling the Firewall’s infrastructure. That way, they can make an end run around the state’s censorship methods, accessing sites like Google, Twitter, Facebook, or even Netflix.

VPNs have other important uses, though. By encrypting user data, they also hide the emails and browsing history of users, potentially preventing officials knowing what users are saying, and how they are communicating. This can be a life-saver for political activists on a host of issues.

Then there are less critical, but still popular uses. VPNs are a tool of choice for entertainment fans in China who want access to global streaming platforms like Netflix. These sites often run their own “censorship” systems, rationing content across borders, but with a VPN in place, that’s not usually an issue.

Will the Google ad ban make a difference to VPN usage in China?

While it’s disheartening to see Google take a collaborative approach towards the Chinese state, there’s room for optimism regarding privacy protection in the People’s Republic.

For example, we know that Chinese attempts to eradicate VPN usage have been a dismal failure. In 2018, the state embarked upon an all-out war against VPNs, seeking to ban them entirely. According to the most up to date stats, around 31% of Chinese web users employ a Virtual Private Network, so the ban hasn’t had much of an effect.

Weirdly, official repression hasn’t dented the Chinese market for VPNs, either. The country has experienced a kind of privacy boom, with 60% of the free VPNs advertised on Google Play and the Apple Store developed by Chinese teams.

How will VPNs in China respond?

While VPN usage in China may hold up, the ad ban could have a damaging effect on commercial providers.

Banner ads are a popular way to market VPNs across popular Chinese websites, and to target these ads at users who may be interested in purchasing privacy services. Without the analytics and reach that Google provides, privacy providers in China may struggle to expand their own reach, limiting the scope for investment in new products, and gradually stifling the sector.

This is especially concerning for major foreign VPNs like NordVPN or ExpressVPN, which are effective ways to counter the Great Firewall. These providers are the real targets of China and Google’s strategy, not free VPNs on app marketplaces.

China can tolerate low-quality free Virtual Private Networks because much of the time they simply don’t work. It’s actually quite convenient for millions of users to rely on compromised privacy tools that can be hacked by the state with ease. Elite global VPNs are another story. If they spread widely in China, the state would be facing a major crisis.

So, what form will the response take? Will VPNs fight back, and will Google be pressured into relaxing its ban on VPN ads? Given the ferocious public backlash against Dragonfly, the signs are encouraging. Google isn’t insulated from criticism any more, and people have woken up to its own repressive, profit-hungry tendencies.

Moreover, the rise of private search engines could work around Google’s dominance of web advertising. But the truth remains that the ad ban is a blow against the development of a mass market for high-quality VPNs in China. We can’t know how long it will operate, or to what degree it will strangle online freedom. But it’s certainly another black mark on Alphabet’s reputation.