In his testimony before the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on December 11, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that his company had “no plans” to launch a censored version of its search engine in China.
“Right now, we have no plans to Search launch in China,” Pichai told the Congressional committee. Pichai responded to a question about Project Dragonfly from US Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who asked how Google plans to censor search results from users seeking a “lifeline” of democracy and freedom.
Pichai faced a room of Congress members in the hearing called “Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices”. The hearing sought to monitor potential bias and the need for greater transparency regarding Google’s filtering practices.
Pichai said that he would be fully transparent with policy makers if Google ever decided to launch a search product in China. He described Project Dragonfly as a “limited effort internally”, and said that Google had developed “what search could look like” in China. He added that Google has not had any current discussions with the Chinese government.
Google came under fire for proposing Project Dragonfly. Critics feared that the project would allow the Chinese government to block its citizens from accessing information as well as allow it to spy on its political opponents.
In August 2018, the Intercept reported that Google was planning to launch a censored version of its search engine in China. Codenamed Project Dragonfly, the search product would have blacklisted websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protests.
It was reported that work on the project had been underway since spring of last year, and accelerated after a December 2017 meeting between Pichai and a top Chinese government official, according to internal Google documents and people in the know.
Documents accessed by the Intercept, marked “Google confidential”, said that Google’s Chinese search app would automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall. This meant that when a person carried out a search, banned websites would not appear on the first page of results. A disclaimer would be displayed stating that “some results may have been removed due to statutory requirements”.
Some examples of these banned websites included those of British news broadcaster BBC and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
Within Google, knowledge about Dragonfly was restricted to just a few hundred members of the internet giant’s 88,000-strong workforce, a source told the Intercept. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the source said that Google employees had moral and ethical concerns about Google’s role in banning websites for Project Dragonfly – which was reportedly being planned by a handful of top executives and managers without any public scrutiny.
Why did it receive backlash?
Internet advocacy groups and rights groups lashed out at Google after reports about Project Dragonfly became public. Just last month, several Google employees signed an open letter urging the company’s management to cancel plans to develop Project Dragonfly.
The letter was in support of Amnesty International’s public campaign against Project Dragonfly, as part of which protests were held outside several Google offices across eight countries.
The letter’s writers said that they “object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable”, warning that Dragonfly could “make it harder for Google to deny other countries similar concessions” in the future.
Google’s employees also raised concerns that the company’s search data could further “empower China’s expansive surveillance network and tools of population control” to target vulnerable communities, women’s rights activists, and students.
Earlier, in August, around 1,400 Google employees had signed a letter demanding more transparency in taking “ethically-informed decisions”. That letter was not made public but was circulated in-house.
The employees wrote that Project Dragonfly and Google’s apparent willingness to bow down to China’s censorship requirements “raise urgent moral and ethical issues”.
They added, “Currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment,” as per the New York Times.
Google in China
Google had plans to expand in China way before Dragonfly. In 2006, Google launched Google.cn, a version of its search engine for China that complied with local censorship regulations. However, as time passed, Google became concerned over several reports of cyberattacks, censorship, and surveillance involving the tool. Failing to win significant market share, Google backed out from China in 2010.
Google stayed out of search in China for seven years until the spring of 2017, according to the Intercept, which was when Google began working on Project Dragonfly under Pichai’s leadership.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius.