Chinese flag over keyboard

Senior scientist quits Google over censored search engine

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According to The Intercept, a senior Google scientist has resigned from the company in objection to Google’s preparations to launch a censored search engine in China.

The project, codenamed Dragonfly, was first brought to light by The Intercept. Dragonfly refers to a search engine which could be approved by China’s strict internet censors after almost a decade of Google being blocked by the ‘Great Firewall of China’, along with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other popular Western sites. Although a heavily censored version of Google search was launched in China in 2006, it was later removed amid concerns of Beijing’s dominance of the internet in China, such as by hacking email accounts and blocking websites.

The new search engine would blacklist websites and search terms relating to democracy, peaceful protest, free speech, human rights and other controversial subjects in China. These will likely also include the Tiananmen Square massacre and sovereignty of Taiwan and Tibet. According to the report, the app had been demonstrated to the Chinese government and could launch in the coming months with Beijing’s approval.

In August, approximately 1,400 Google staff presented a letter to the company leadership objecting to the search engine, demanding to know what they were contributing towards and requesting that an ombudsman was appointed to assess their ethical concerns.

“We urgently need more transparency, a seat at the table, and a commitment to clear and open processes: Google employees need to know what we’re building,” they wrote.

This resignation is the first high-profile resignation in response to the Dragonfly project. Jack Poulson – a former Stanford University mathematics professor – was a senior research scientist in Google’s machine intelligence department, having joined the company in 2016.

According to The Intercept, Poulson began to raise concerns with his seniors following reports of the project and later decided that he could no longer continue to work for the company and it was his “ethical responsibility” to stand up for Google’s stated human rights principles. Google’s ‘Artificial Intelligence’ principles require the company’s work in this field to be socially beneficial, unbiased, safe, accountable, private and transparent. The principles state that Google must not create technologies which violate “widely accepted principles of international law and human rights”.

“Due to my conviction that dissent is fundamental to functioning democracies, I am forced to resign in order to avoid contributing to, or profiting from, the erosion of protection for dissidents,” he wrote. “I view our intent to capitulate to censorship and surveillance demands in exchange for access to the Chinese market as a forfeiture of our values and governmental negotiating position across the globe.”

Poulson also cited his concerns about hosting customer data within China; new laws introduced in June 2017 require foreign companies to store Chinese users’ data within servers in the country, sparking concerns of state surveillance. He said that he believed he was one of about five Google employees so far to resign over the project.

Google has not yet directly addressed concerns about the Dragonfly project in public.

In August, Apple was criticised for spiking an estimated 25,000 apps from its App Store under pressure from Beijing.

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