As Huawei counts down the days to the launch of its latest smartphone, the P40 Pro, its loss of Google continues to take a huge toll. The Google/Huawei back and forth has dominated the U.S. blacklist headlines, and has resulted in the Chinese giant working up its Huawei Mobile Services replacement for Google, which includes a fully-featured app store and underlying services such as navigation.
What hasn’t been on the cards yet has been search. And why would it? Any browser can quickly access search engines of choice, as long as access to those engines are not restricted. But search is obviously much more integrated than just browser home pages now. News, weather, travel, media—we see the results of those engines stitched through our devices. The power in the hands of Google, particularly, has driven phenomenal financial success, but also responsibility for influencing the content that many of us now see first and foremost day by day.
And so the surprise news leaking out of Huawei this week is huge—Huawei Search is on its way, and will soon launch “as part of the Huawei ecosystem.” Not only does this represent a further business risk to Google from the ongoing technology split, east versus west, but it also raises some significant questions around who curates and filters our news. Huawei is the second largest supplier of smartphones worldwide, its global audience stretches way beyond China’s borders.
There are clear implications for a Chinese company, subject to China’s laws on content and censorship, filtering news for users around the world. Last month, by way of example, Chinese social media outlets, as well as Baidu, its leading search engine, were subject to state controls over publishing coronavirus information. While western platforms are also subject to censorship inside China, the question as to the pressure applied to a Chinese company’s news outside China is unclear.
The team at XDA-Developers tested Huawei Search, reporting that is is “a basic search app that just lets you input a query to search the Internet for webpages, videos, news articles, or images.” But, by way of example, the weather data “is powered by Huafeng-AccuWeather, a joint venture that apparently sources forecast data from the China Meteorological Administration.”
There is no data available as to the source of the wider search results, “we couldn’t match search results from Huawei Search with results from Google, Yahoo, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Yandex, Ask, or AOL.” The software is licensed from Huawei’s Irish subsidiary and appears to comply with relevant GDPR regulations around removing search data. XDA-Developers concluded that “it would be premature to say that Huawei Search is an alternative to Google search or Microsoft Bing, but there’s a possibility that this service could evolve into a decent competitor down the line.”
This isn’t a mapping app, it’s not a new front-end for our email or a payment processing engine. This is a potential filter that sits atop the World Wide Web, serving up content for hundreds of millions of users worldwide. Whether or not you believe the U.S. allegations that Huawei is controlled by the Chinese state, that it is subsidised and subject to Beijing’s national security laws, it is unarguably a company based in the most highly censored country on the planet.
Until now, this story has focused on the dedicated Huawei Search app. But behind that app sits a range of search engines and related services. And it is the prospect of those engines and their results being stitched into the Huawei operating system’s front-end that is more of a potential concern than the app itself.
I have commented before on the unintended consequences of the U.S. blacklist—Google and the U.S. losing their global influence on mobile standards, the launch of a third-way competitor to full-fat Android and iOS, the potential for Huawei to carve itself a dominant position overseeing that new alternative. This search news is a material further step in this, and from a transparency perspective has worrying implications. There is also the fact that search related data would be captured from the search history of those users.
If you want to see for yourself, Huawei Central has published a link to download Huawei Search, even though “you will not find this app on AppGallery because it’s still under internal testing and not launched publicly.”
In the meantime, Google has reportedly applied for a U.S. Commerce Department license to restore its supply lines to Huawei. This would return its software and services to the Chinese giant’s Android users worldwide. And if that happens there will be a different question: Which of Huawei’s alternative apps and offerings will be shut down, restricted to China or carried as alternatives on its devices?