Hundreds of Google employees have signed an open letter urging the company to drop DragonFly, the code name given to its apparent efforts to launch a censored search engine in China.
Published the same day activists staged protests at Google headquarters in several countries, the letter, published Tuesday, takes aim at the company’s little-known yet controversial project that reportedly involves creating a search engine that complies with China’s infamous censorship regime.
“Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be,” Google employees wrote in the letter. “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 has officially said little about Dragonfly except confirm its existence since reports about the project first surfaced in Aug. 2018. But employees, human rights activists and investigative journalists have said it involves creating a search engine in compliance with China’s strict censorship rules, and chief executive Sundar Pichai will likely be asked about it by lawmakers next week when he makes his public debut on Capitol Hill.
“There is a Dragonfly Project,” Keith Enright, Google’s chief privacy officer, testified during a September hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee. “I am not clear on the contours of what is in scope or out of scope for that project.”
News reports involving Dragonfly have been less vague, however, and The Intercept has cited leaked Google documents to suggest that the project would blacklist sensitive queries and associate users’ searches with their personal phone numbers.
“Dragonfly would also enable censorship and government-directed disinformation, and destabilize the ground truth on which popular deliberation and dissent rely,” Google employees wrote in the open letter. “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.”
More than 400 employees had signed the open letter as of Wednesday afternoon.
Google previously operated in China, but the company bowed out after being banned in 2010 for refusing to heed the government’s censorship requests. More recently, the annual Freedom of the Net report released by the nonprofit Freedom House organization this month ranked China as the world’s “worst abuse of internet freedom” for the forth year in a row.
“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,” a Google spokesperson told reporters in response to the employees’ letter this week. “But our work on search has been exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China.”
Google employees released the open letter the same day Amnesty International held protests outside company offices in cities including San Francisco, Berlin, Toronto and London, CNet reported.
“We’re calling on Google employees to stand with us,” Amnesty International activist Amy Gordon said during the San Francisco protest, according to the tech site. “We think that Google should be fighting for an internet where information is freely accessible to everyone.”
Mr. Pichai, Google’s CEO since 2015, will testify publicly on Capitol Hill for the first time during a Dec. 5 hearing announced Tuesday by the House Judiciary Committee. The hearing will “examine potential bias and the need for greater transparency regarding the filtering practices of tech giant Google,” the committee said in a statement.
“Google therefore has great influence over what millions of people can and cannot find on the Internet. That comes with a responsibility to its users,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican.