Google Employees Demand Company Kill Censored Chinese Search Product

By Bryan Menegus on at

Googlers have, over the past few months, been fighting for a louder voice and greater self-determination within a company that’s increasingly gone astray of its bare-minimum unofficial motto, “don’t be evil”—and more often than not, they’re winning. But there’s still one big fly in the ointment.

Discomfort over revelations, first reported by Gizmodo, that the crown jewel of Silicon Valley was working hand in glove with the Pentagon on an AI-imaging program for drone footage, known as Project Maven, brought internal backlash and the cancellation of Google’s commitment to the project. Reporting by the New York Times regarding golden parachutes the company handed to high-ranking employees accused of sexual misconduct resulted in coordinated mass walkouts. Though not all demands were met, that display of solidarity brought an end to Google’s long-running practice of forced arbitration settlements for sexual misconduct cases.

The exception to this string of employee victories—all of which are largely unprecedented in the tech sector—is Project Dragonfly, the search product Google is developing for the Chinese market. It’s reported to come baked in with government-requested censorship and ties queries to users’ phone numbers, which Amnesty International warns could allow for greater surveillance. This summer, 1,400 Googlers signed a letter asking (politely, that time) for Dragonfly to be mothballed. Another employee, who quit in disgust over the project’s compliance with the Chinese government’s wishes, urged the US Senate to scrutinise Dragonfly.

Still, Dragonfly remains active.

This morning, the fight to shut down Dragonfly escalated a step further. Rather than send a letter to company leadership, only to have it leak to press soon after, Googlers posted the letter publicly on Medium—and took the extraordinary risk of publicly signing their names, beginning with nine workers, five of which are in senior or leadership roles. New names will be added as more Googlers sign the letter.

Continued development and deployment of Dragonfly would, in the eyes of these dissenters, “make Google complicit in oppression and human rights abuses” and would create precedent for the company to build similarly draconian tools for other foreign powers.

“Many of us 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,” the letter reads. “After a year of disappointments including Project Maven, Dragonfly, and Google’s support for abusers, we no longer believe this is the case. This is why we’re taking a stand.”

We’ve reached out to Google for comment.

Read the full letter below:

LETTER FROM GOOGLE WORKERS:

We are Google employees and we join with Amnesty International in calling on Google to cancel project Dragonfly, Google’s effort to create a censored search engine for the Chinese market that enables state surveillance.

Google leadership has failed to respond to employees who have raised questions for months. International human rights organisations and investigative reporters have also sounded the alarm, emphasising serious human rights concerns and repeatedly calling on Google to cancel the project. So far, there have been no satisfactory answers from leadership.

Our company’s decision comes at a time when the Chinese government is openly expanding its surveillance powers and mechanisms for population control. Many of these rely on advanced technologies, and combine online activity, personal records, and mass monitoring to track and profile citizens. Reports are already showing who bears the cost, including Uyghurs, women’s rights advocates, and students. Giving the Chinese government ready access to user data, as required by Chinese law, would make Google complicit in oppression and human rights abuses.

Dragonfly would also enable censorship and government-directed disinformation, and destabilise 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 marginalised people, and favour information that promotes government interests.

We refuse to build 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, one that would make it harder for Google to deny other countries similar concessions.

Many of us 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. After a year of disappointments including Project Maven, Dragonfly, and Google’s support for abusers, we no longer believe this is the case. This is why we’re taking a stand.

We join with Amnesty International in demanding that Dragonfly be cancelled. We also demand that leadership commit to transparency, clear communication, and real accountability. We deserve to know what we’re building and we deserve a say in these significant decisions.

Signed*

David H. Alexander, Senior Software Engineer

Amr Gaber, Software Engineer

Colin McMillen, Staff Software Engineer

Steven Monacelli, Program Manager

Matthew Siegler, Senior Software Engineer

Joëlle Skaf, Staff Software Engineer

Zora Tung, Software Engineer

Meredith Whittaker, Google Open Research lead

Jean Zheng, Senior Staff Technology Manager