Google employees appear to be divided over the future of the search giant’s controversial ‘Project Dragonfly,’ which aims to build a censored search engine there.
In a surprising new letter, some 500 employees urge the company to continue work on Project Dragonfly, saying it falls in line with Google’s broader mission ‘to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,’ according to TechCrunch.
It comes as hundreds of Google employees, human rights organizations and politicians have cast doubt on plans for the search engine, saying it would help prop up China‘s authoritarian government.
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In a surprising new letter, 500 employees urged Google to continue work on Project Dragonfly, saying it falls in line with Google’s broader mission ‘to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.’ Pictured are protesters of the project
WHAT IS GOOGLE’S DRAGONFLY PROJECT?
Recent reports have suggested Google plans to build a censored version of its search engine in China, as part of a project called ‘Dragonfly.’
The app would have to comply with China’s rigid censorship laws, which would mean restricting access to content that government officials consider unfavorable.
Search terms about human rights, democracy, religion and peaceful protests will be blocked from the app.
Linking searches with a user’s phone number would allow officials to easily track activity on the platform, potentially allowing them to target political activists, journalists and dissenters.
‘Dragonfly is well aligned with Google’s mission,’ according to the letter, a copy of which was obtained by TechCrunch.
‘China has the largest number of Internet users of all countries in the world, and yet, most of Google’s services are unavailable in China.
‘This situation heavily contradicts our mission, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
‘While there are some prior success, Google should keep the effort in finding out how to bring more of our products and services, including Search, to the Chinese users,’ the letter continues.
The letter is unsigned but has reportedly been shared internally at Google.
As TechCrunch pointed out, while 500 signatures may seem sizable, it’s still only a fraction of Google’s broader 85,000 workforce.
The letter does concede that creating the search engine is a ‘challenging’ project, given China’s strict regulations, and that if ‘we are not careful enough, the project can end up doing more harm than good.’
Despite this, it says work on the project should continue in order to give Google a fair shot at re-entering China, which it left in 2010.
In a new letter, managers and engineers rail against Google’s Project Dragonfly for its potential to ‘enable state surveillance’ and ‘aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable’
‘Nonetheless, we believe that continuing work on Dragonfly is needed, and will be helpful to all Googlers regardless of their backgrounds and expectations,’ the letter notes.
‘Given the good motivation and the challenging nature of the project, we believe that Google should continue on Dragonfly, which benefits both Google and the massive user base in China.’
Meanwhile, the other letter, which has racked up almost 500 signatures from senior managers and engineers, labeled the project as one that would ‘enable state surveillance’ and ‘aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable.’
On Wednesday, Amnesty International held several protests across the globe calling for Google to end the controversial project.
It comes as a new report from The Intercept details the internal controversy at Google as the idea for Project Dragonfly was being explored.
Meetings about the project were held as far back as February 2017, where it was discussed that Project Dragonfly would have to operate using data centers in Beijing or Shanghai, which meant that Chinese citizens’ search records could be accessed by the government there.
Google has said little about its plans for Project Dragonfly, aside from an Aug. 31 letter to six senators made public in October. In it, Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said the company was ‘thoughtfully considering a variety of options for how to offer services in China
Details about the plan were held tightly under wraps, with executives going so far as only speaking verbally about the project and refusing to leave a paper trail, the Information said.
Only a hundred Google employees were briefed on the plan, which seemed unusual to Yonatan Zunger, who ended up being in charge of leading the privacy review of Project Dragonfly.
‘They [leadership] were determined to prevent leaks about Dragonfly from spreading through the company,’ a current Google employee told the Intercept.
‘Their biggest fear was that internal opposition would slow our operations.’
Sources told the Intercept that employees were told they could lose their jobs if they broke confidentiality rules.
Early on, Zunger raised several red flags about Chinese citizens facing interrogations or being jailed if they used Google to look for banned search items, according to the Intercept.
Google is currently wrangling with what is arguably the toughest period in the company’s 20-year history. Thousands of high-paid engineers and other Google staff walked out of their offices in protest last week over over the company’s male-dominated culture (file photo)
CHINESE INTERNET CRACKDOWN
While China is home to the world’s largest number of internet users, a 2015 report by US think tank Freedom House found that the country had the most restrictive online use policies of 65 nations it studied, ranking below Iran and Syria.
But China has maintained that its various forms of web censorship are necessary for protecting its national security.
It has cracked down on VPNs after the passing of a controversial cybersecurity bill last November that tightened restrictions on online freedom of speech and imposed new rules on service providers.
Since the regulation took effect this June, authorities have closed dozens of celebrity gossip blogs and issued new rules around online video content to eliminate programmes deemed offensive.
As part of Zunger’s privacy review of Project Dragonfly, he hoped to find out whether the search engine would be safe from state and non-state hackers and if Chinese users would be able to control their data, among other things.
Zunger reportedly received pushback from Scott Beaumont, Google’s head of operations in China, who didn’t feel the surveillance concerns were pressing enough to stop work on the project.
His review ultimately found that it ‘would be difficult, if not impossible’ for Google to resist information requests from the Chinese government or even refuse to build systems for the purpose of surveillance, as well as tell users how their data would be used, the Intercept explained.
Zunger, who worked at Google for 14 years, eventually left the company, but said he hopes Google will ‘end up with a Project Dragonfly that does something genuinely positive and valuable for the ordinary people of China.’
So far, Google has given few clues as to the future of Project Dragonfly.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai has backed the project but said it was unclear if the firm ‘would or could’ launch the search engine there.
However, staffers have been told to prepare to launch the project between January and April 2019, the Intercept noted.