Google employees push to halt creation of censored search engine for China

Google employees push to halt creation of censored search engine for China
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Dozens of Google employees signed onto an open letter released Tuesday calling for the company to halt the creation of a censored search engine for China.

The project, dubbed "Dragonfly," has been the subject of considerable internal debate at Google, though the letter marks the first time the tech giant's employees have gone public with their opposition.

The letter raises concerns that the search engine will aid China in its state surveillance efforts, including the targeting of minorities, human rights advocates and students.

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"Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China," the letter, signed by more than 100 employees so far, states. "We object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be." 

"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," it adds.

The letter is part of a multipronged campaign launched by Amnesty International on Tuesday to oppose the creation of Dragonfly.

The human rights group staged demonstrations on Tuesday outside of Google offices in eight countries, Joe Westby, an Amnesty International researcher for technology and human rights, told The Hill. They are also targeting Google employees with a satirical ad denouncing Dragonfly on LinkedIn and Facebook to ramp up the pressure.

"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." 

A Google spokesman declined to respond directly to the protests and letter, but pointed The Hill to an earlier statement about its investments in China. 

“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," the statement reads. "But our work on search has been exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China.”   

Amnesty International's concerns stem in part from an Intercept investigation that found Dragonfly would comply with China's intensive censorship rules, which stifle speech and protest in the country.

"There is a real danger that if Google launches Dragonfly, it will end up helping the Chinese government to arrest or imprison people simply for expressing their views online," Westby said. "The government has been targeting minorities, particular Uyghur, and also a range of other dissidents."  

The Intercept in September reported that a blacklist Google created for the project would block terms including "student protest" and "Nobel Prize," as well as phrases that imply criticism of the country's president, Xi Jinping.

The group of Google employees in the public letter also sounded the alarm over Google "providing the Chinese government with ready access to user data, as required by Chinese law," saying that data-sharing "would make Google complicit in oppression and human rights abuses."

"Google is too powerful not to be held accountable," the letter concludes. "We deserve to know what we’re building and we deserve a say in these significant decisions." 

Several Google employees have already resigned over Dragonfly, which has been denounced for months by top human rights organizations and by Vice President Pence.

Pence last month accused the search engine of strengthening "Communist Party censorship" and compromising "the privacy of Chinese customers."

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has defended the company's involvement in China, saying at a conference last month, “We are compelled by our mission [to] provide information to everyone, and [China is] 20 percent of the world’s population."

Westby said Amnesty International is concerned about the "signal that [Dragonfly] would send to other governments" and the "breakdown in trust that it would represent around Google and its willingness to stick to its commitments in relation to human rights."  

Updated at 2:44 p.m.