By Elton Gomes
As of early this monring, more than 450 Google employees had signed a public letter, urging their company’s management to cancel plans to develop a censored version of the company’s search engine in China, known as Project Dragonfly. The letter had been published with just nine names on Tuesday, and will continue to add names as more Google employees send in their signatures.
The letter is 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 on Tuesday. Amnesty International has urged Google to not bow down to China’s censorship demands. With “#DropDragonfly”, the organisation gained support on Twitter, with several users urging Google to withdraw its plans in China.
Google refused to comment on the letter, and instead mentioned a previous statement about the project. “We’ve been investing for many years to help Chinese users, from developing Android, through mobile apps such as Google Translate and Files Go, and our developer tools,” a Google spokesperson told NPR. “But our work on search has been exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China.”
Earlier, in August, around 1,400 Google employees signed a letter demanding more transparency in taking “ethically-informed decisions”. That letter was not made public and was circulated in-house.
The employees wrote that Project Dragonfly and Google’s apparent willingness to give in 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,” the New York Times reported.
What is Project Dragonfly?
In August, the Intercept reported that Google was planning to launch a censored version of its search engine in China. Code-named Dragonfly, the project has been in the works since 2017.
The project got a boost after a December 2017 meeting between Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai and a top Chinese government official, according to internal company documents and people with knowledge of the discussions.
The Intercept had access to documents marked “Google confidential”. The documents said that Google’s Chinese search app would automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall.
Under the Great Firewall, the Chinese government blocks information on the internet about political opponents, free speech, sex, news, and academic studies. It bans websites about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, for instance, and references to “anticommunism” and “dissidents.” Mentions of books that negatively portray authoritarian governments, like George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, have been prohibited on Weibo, a Chinese social media website. The country also censors popular Western social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as American news organisations such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
When a search will be conducted in the proposed China-specific Google, banned websites will be removed from the first page of results, and a disclaimer will be displayed stating that “some results may have been removed due to statutory requirements”. Some examples of websites that would be subject to the censorship were those of British news broadcaster BBC, and Wikipedia.
Additionally, as per the documents, the search app would “blacklist sensitive queries” so that “no results will be shown” at all when people enter certain words or phrases. The app would reportedly block phrases such as “human rights,” “Nobel Prize,” and “student protest”. These censors would work across the platform.
Google’s image search, automatic spell check, and suggested search features would incorporate the blacklists, which meant that they would not recommend people information or photographs that are banned by the government.
Knowledge about Project Dragonfly was restricted to just a few hundred members of Google’s 88,000-strong workforce, a source familiar with development told the Intercept.
Why are Google’s employees protesting against Project Dragonfly?
Tuesday’s letter stated that Google’s response over human rights concerns was “unsatisfactory”. 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.
The employees also raised concerns that Google’s search data could further “empower China’s expansive surveillance network and tools of population control” to target vulnerable communities, including Uighur Muslims, women’s rights activists, 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,” the letter said.
What has CEO Sundar Pichai said?
Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that the company operates in several countries around the world where censorship exists. He said that when Google complies with “right to be forgotten” laws, it is censoring search results to comply with local laws.
“I’m committed to serving users in China. Whatever form it takes, I actually don’t know the answer,” Pichai had said in an earlier interview with the New York Times. “It’s not even clear to me that search in China is the product we need to do today.”
China’s fraught relationship with censorship
Since its inception, the Internet has been viewed as a largely democratic space – a space that would weaken oppressive governments by allowing a free flow of information. However, China’s authoritarian regime has been using the internet to leverage their own power.
In recent times, China has developed sophisticated infrastructure for online surveillance and censorship. China has been forcing online services operating in China to comply with Chinese censorship laws. This means that search engines have no option but to censor search results on sensitive topics.
Some recent examples of censorship in China include the banning of a new Winnie the Pooh film after memes compared the titular cartoon character to President Xi Jinping. In another instance, HBO’s website was blocked after John Oliver called Xi the “creepy uncle who imprisons 800,000 people in his basement”.
But the internet was a less constrained, albeit still censored and restricted, space in China before Xi Jinping became president in 2012. Before Xi became the president, the Chinese citizens were at least able to use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access blocked websites.
However, Xi’s government invested in technological upgrades to monitor and censor content. New laws on acceptable content were passed, and transgressors were aggressively punished.
Under Xi, foreign content providers access to China has been diminishing. Xi’s intent that only Chinese companies should dominate its growing online economy has left little room for foreign companies, including Facebook and Google.
Recent protests at Google
In November, thousands of Google employees from its offices worldwide joined a walkout to protest against the tech giant’s handling of sexual harassment. In a coordinated effort, the “Google Walkout For Real Change” Twitter account urged all employees and contractors to leave their workplaces at 11.10 am local time around the world on November 1.
The organisers were demanding that an employee representative join the company’s board and for Google to end “forced arbitration” in cases of harassment and discrimination, which refers to a practice that prevents employees from taking cases to court. This protest was a result of an explosive New York Times report that revealed how Google had essentially rewarded and protected, instead of penalised, high-powered executives in the company who had been accused and subsequently found guilty of sexual misconduct.
In April, Project Maven saw thousands of Google employees protest against the company’s military contract with the Pentagon. Under Project Maven, Google had developed a technology that would analyse drone video footage which could help in potentially identifying human targets.
About a dozen engineers resigned over what they thought was an unethical use of artificial intelligence. The resignations prompted Google to let the contract expire in June, while leading executives pledged that they would never use AI to cause harm to others.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius.