Google Dragonfly Amnesty protest

Google staff protest against Chinese censored search engine project

Image credit: AP

Several hundred of Google's own employees have signed an open letter protesting against the company's plans to build a search engine that complies with China's online censorship regime.

The existence of the project, codenamed Dragonfly, was confirmed by Sundar Pichai, Google chief executive, last month. Hundreds of disgruntled employees have been voicing their opposition to the project internally within the company for some time, but this is the first public demonstration of their anger. The number of signatories to the letter continues to rise.

Earlier this year, over 1,400 Google employees signed an internal letter demanding more transparency and accountability on the ethics of company projects, citing Dragonfly as an initiative that was developed without employee input.

Pichai has defended the Dragonfly project, saying that Google could help Chinese internet users find and access more (government-approved) general information, such as health and medicine treatments, and educate them about online scams.

However, any material deemed politically sensitive would be blocked outright, in line with the Chinese government’s strict online censorship and surveillance rules. Search terms such as ‘human rights’ and even ‘Nobel Prize’ would be banned, as would phrases arising from topics such as ‘democracy’, ‘religion’, ‘peaceful protest’ etc. People using Google in China would also be blocked from accessing banned websites, such as Wikipedia and Facebook.

The China-specific search engine is also believed to link Chinese users’ search records to their smartphone numbers. This search history information would then be shared with a Chinese partner company, meaning that the security agencies, who actively target activists and critics of the government, would be able to access the data.

The Dragonfly project has attracted fierce criticism from people both inside and outside Google, many of whom are hugely disappointed at the apparent diminishing of Google’s corporate values, raising concerns about the long-term consequences of technology companies cooperating with authoritarian governments. Amnesty International held “day of action” demonstrations outside Google offices around the world to further amplify the issue, with street gatherings held outside Google offices in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, the Netherlands and Spain, where a giant inflatable dragonfly took to the sky.

In the open letter and petition, published online at Medium, the Google employees wrote: “Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be. The Chinese government certainly isn’t alone in its readiness to stifle freedom of expression and to use surveillance to repress dissent. Dragonfly in China would establish a dangerous precedent at a volatile political moment, one that would make it harder for Google to deny other countries similar concessions.”

Last month, Pichai told a group of six US senators that a censored Chinese search engine could provide “broad benefits inside and outside of China”, although he refused to answer any further questions. He claimed this was because it was unclear whether or not Google “would or could release a search service” in China.

Speaking to Wired in October, Pichai said, “I think it’s important for us - given how important the market is, and how many users there are - we feel obliged to think hard about this problem and take a long-term view.”

In 2010, Google publicly promised that it would never support China’s internet censorship and withdrew its products from China. The search engine has been absent from the country since that time.

This decision was referred to in the employee’s online letter, which said: “Many of us accepted employment at Google with the company’s values in mind, including its previous position on Chinese censorship and surveillance, and an understanding that Google was a company willing to place its values above its profits.”

“The Chinese government is openly expanding its surveillance powers and tools of population control,” the letter continued.

“Google is too powerful not to be held accountable. We deserve to know what we’re building and we deserve a say in these significant decisions.”

The issue of fading ethics and values in pursuit of profit has been dogging Google for months now. A dozen Google employees quit their jobs over a secretive military drone project, while over 3,000 workers signed a letter demanding that Pichai cancel Google’s military contracts. Thousands of workers worldwide also staged a mass walkout in protest at Google’s feeble handling of executives accused of sexual misconduct.

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