Employees want Google to halt creation of censored search engine for China

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

The controversial project, dubbed “Dragonfly,” has been the subject of considerable internal debate at Google, but the letter marks the first time the tech giant’s employees have gone public with their dissent.

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

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Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China,” the letter, which has been 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,” the letter adds. 

The letter is one part of a multi-pronged campaign launched by Amnesty International on Tuesday to oppose the creation of Dragonfly. Amnesty International, one of the world’s most powerful human rights organizations, throughout Tuesday will stage demonstrations in front of Google offices and contact the company’s employees over LinkedIn to ramp up the pressure. 

“This is a watershed moment for Google,” Joe Westby, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Technology and Human Rights, 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.” 

Google and Amnesty International did not immediately respond to The Hill’s request for comment.

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.

The Intercept in September reported that the 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 even Vice President Mike Pence.

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

Google last month declined to respond to Pence’s criticism, but pointed 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.” 

The company’s CEO Sundar Pichai has defended its 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.” 

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