Join NexChange - the professional
network for the financial services
industry - and receive a free one-
year subscription to Forbes
Google Employees Pen Open Letter Demanding Company Drop Plans For Censored China Search Engine
Google employees have ramped up their protest over the company’s once-secret plan to build a censored search engine in China, with dozens of employees signing their name to an open letter published on Medium demanding the company drop the plan, known as Project Dragonfly.
The open letter appears to be a joint effort between the employees and Amnesty International to put pressure on Google to abandon the Dragonfly project. The human rights organization penned its own open letter to Google on the same day, warning that the strategy “could irreparably damage internet users’ trust in the tech company.”
In their letter, Google employees note that both human rights organizations and members of the media have “sounded the alarm, emphasizing serious human rights concerns and repeatedly calling on Google to cancel the project.” They add that thus 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.
Google employees first revolted in August when The Intercept reported on the controversial Dragonfly project. A group of employees wrote a letter shortly after the story broke, taking Google’s leadership to task for not keeping them informed on its plans, noting that “the decision to build Project Dragonfly was made in secret” and that most employees only learned about it through news reports.
According to the leaked documents acquired by The Intercept, “Google’s Chinese search app will automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall,” which is the name given to China’s strict internet censorship laws. Google shutdown its service in China in 2010, saying at the time that it was forced to leave the country because of sophisticated cyber attacks allegedly originating out of China.
“[During] our investigation into these attacks we had uncovered evidence to suggest that the Gmail accounts of dozens of human rights activists connected with China were being routinely accessed by third parties, most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on their computers,” Google said in a blog post announcing its decision to shutdown its service in China.
In its newest letter, Google employees said that many had “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.” It added that re-entering the market in China, “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.
Meanwhile, Joe Westby, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Technology and Human Rights, did not mince words in his condemnation of Google’s plans.
“This is a watershed moment for Google,” Westby said in a statement. “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.”
Despite the backlash from both current and former employees, Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently doubled down on the company’s plans to re-enter China. Speaking at the WIRED 25 Summit in October, Pichar said in an interview that Google is “compelled by our mission [to] provide information to everyone, and [China is] 20 percent of the world’s population.”
Photo: Getty iStock