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Video: ‘A dangerous precedent’ – Google workers want plug pulled on plan for censored China search

Google workers on Tuesday posted an open letter calling on the internet giant to abort plans for “a censored search” service in China or risk setting a dangerous precedent.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai last month acknowledged publicly for the first time that the company is considering a search engine for China, saying it could offer “better information” to people than rival services.

Unconfirmed reports of “Project Dragonfly” had sparked protest from Google’s workforce as well as groups including Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International, which is encouraging people to sign an online petition calling for its cancellation.

'We are Google employees. Google must drop Dragonfly' - click to view the full statement

We are Google employees and we join Amnesty International in calling on Google to cancel project Dragonfly, Google’s effort to create a censored search engine for the Chinese market that enables state surveillance.

We are among thousands of employees who have raised our voices for months. International human rights organizations and investigative reporters have also sounded the alarm, emphasizing serious human rights concerns and repeatedly calling on Google to cancel the project. So far, our leadership’s response has been unsatisfactory.

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.

Our company’s decision comes as the Chinese government is openly expanding its surveillance powers and tools of population control. Many of these rely on advanced technologies, and combine online activity, personal records, and mass monitoring to track and profile citizens. Reports are already showing who bears the cost, including Uyghurswomen’s rights advocates, and students. Providing the Chinese government with ready access to user data, as required by Chinese law, would make Google complicit in oppression and human rights abuses.

Dragonfly would also enable censorship and government-directed disinformation, and destabilize the ground truth on which popular deliberation and dissent rely. Given the Chinese government’s reported suppression of dissident voices, such controls would likely be used to silence marginalized people, and favor information that promotes government interests.

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. After a year of disappointments including Project Maven, Dragonfly, and Google’s support for abusers, we no longer believe this is the case. This is why we’re taking a stand.

We join with Amnesty International in demanding that Google cancel Dragonfly. We also demand that leadership commit to transparency, clear communication, and real accountability. 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.

Click to view list of signatories.

“Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be,” read the workers’ letter, which bore the names of 90 Google employees and called for more of the firms’ more than 94,000 employees to sign.

google censorship dragonfly china

Photo: Miranda Yip/William Nee, via Twitter.

“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.”

A search application designed to filter out censored content from results could damage all internet users’ trust in Google, Amnesty International said in a post on its website on Tuesday.

“This is a watershed moment for Google,” said Amnesty International researcher on technology and human rights Joe Westby.

“As the world’s number one search engine, it should be fighting for an internet where information is freely accessible to everyone, not backing the Chinese government’s dystopian alternative.”

Speaking at a conference last month, Pichai said Google leaders “feel obliged to think hard” about China despite criticism over the possibility of cooperating with Chinese censorship.

“We are always balancing a set of values,” he said, while adding that “we also follow the rule of law in every country.”

Google shut down its search engine in China in 2010, refusing Beijing’s requirement to censor search results.

Pichai described Project Dragonfly as an effort to learn about what Google could offer if it resumed its search operations in the world’s second largest economy.

“It turns out we would be able to serve well over 99 percent of the (search) queries,” he said onstage in a question-and-answer session.

“And there are many, many areas where we would provide better information than what is available.”

Sundar Pichai

Sundar Pichai. Photo: Maurizio Pesce, via Flickr.

Pichai offered no details on the status of the effort but said he was taking a “long-term view” on China.

“We don’t know whether we would or could do this in China but we felt it was important to explore,” he said.

“I think it’s important for us given how important the market is and how many users there are.”

US internet titans have long struggled with doing business in China, home of a “Great Firewall” that blocks politically sensitive content, such as the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and The New York Times website are blocked in China, but Microsoft’s Bing search engine continues to operate.

Video: 'A dangerous precedent' - Google workers want plug pulled on plan for censored China search