Search engine giant Google seems to be hell-bent on offering censored search engine services in China, called Project Dragonfly, despite strong opposition from hundreds of employees and several human rights organizations. This is a big U-turn for Google, which has prided itself as a champion of free speech ever since its inception.
Growing employee agitation
By the last week of November, an open letter asking Google to end the Dragonfly project received massive support from the company’s employees. The letter eventually collected more than 600 signatures and was published online.
“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,” says the letter.
It also highlighted how Google’s actions come at a time when Beijing is increasing its surveillance over citizens by using advanced technologies to profile, track, and suppress its own people. The letter argued that by providing the Chinese government with ready access to user data, Google was being complicit in the human rights abuses carried on by the Communist Party. Several organizations have also blasted the search company and asked Google to reveal more information about Dragonfly.
“As it stands, Google risks becoming complicit in the Chinese government’s repression of freedom of speech and other human rights in China. Google should heed the concerns raised by human rights groups and its own employees and refrain from offering censored search services in China,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Excluding privacy teams
Google was also said to be highly secretive about the Dragonfly project, to the extent that security and privacy teams were excluded from being involved in the project. The company reportedly was afraid of a large-scale employee protest if information about Dragonfly were revealed.
Some of the employees who were actually involved in the project were warned that they would lose jobs if they broke the confidentiality agreement and disclosed anything about Dragonfly to people outside the project.
“Google’s leadership considered Dragonfly so sensitive that they would often communicate only verbally about it and would not take written notes during high-level meetings to reduce the paper trail, two sources said. Only a few hundred of Google’s 88,000 workforce were briefed about the censorship plan. Some engineers and other staff who were informed about the project were told that they risked losing their jobs if they dared to discuss it with colleagues who were themselves not working on Dragonfly,” according to The Intercept.
In 2010, Google had withdrawn from China after declaring that it could no longer tolerate Beijing’s efforts to control free speech. It was seen as a bold move back then, with Google gaining massive support from Internet activists across the world. With Dragonfly, Google has essentially thrown out its commitment to free speech. Unfortunately, once China succeeds in implementing a censored version of Google, similar demands might increase from other nations, thereby threatening the very idea of Internet freedom.