SAN FRANCISCO • A group of Google employees has signed a public letter calling on the company to abandon its plans for a Chinese search product that censors results.
Project Dragonfly, as the initiative is known, would enable state surveillance at a time when the Chinese government is expanding controls over the population, according to the letter signed initially by at least 10 employees, predominately software engineers and researchers. The document also called on management to commit to transparency, be accountable and provide clear communication.
Ever since plans for Dragonfly emerged in August, Google parent Alphabet Inc has been riven by internal dissent at the prospect of a search engine bending to Beijing’s censorship.
It was that sort of government control that prompted co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to effectively pull out of China in 2010 when it decided to stop removing controversial links from web queries.
“We refuse to build technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be,” the Google workers wrote in the letter.
“Dragonfly in China would establish a dangerous precedent, one that would make it harder for Google to deny other countries similar concessions.”
A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on the letter and said the China search project has only been “exploratory”.
The Google staff coordinated the letter with Amnesty International, a global advocacy group that is protesting in several cities against the company’s plans in China. Within five hours, the Google employee letter, posted on Medium, had been signed by more than 100 people. This isn’t the only issue Google employees have spoken out against.
Thousands of workers walked out of their office on Nov 1 to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment and assault complaints. Earlier this year, another petition helped push the company into cancelling a military contract.
The most recent letter is different though, because the employees are adding their real names, whereas earlier dissent had largely been anonymous.
Re-entering China has been a key goal of Google CEO Sundar Pichai. In 2016, a small team that included Pichai began working on China-related projects, including Dragonfly, to bring Google’s search engine back into the country.
The decision was met with pushback from both Google engineers and executives. Alphabet chairman John Hennessy has said he’s not confident Google will be better off bringing a censored search engine.
Those employees who signed the letter said they joined the company conscious of its previous position on Chinese censorship and Google’s willingness to place “values above its profits”.