'We're Taking A Stand': Google Workers Protest Plans For Censored Search In China

By Colin Dwyer

A security guard stands in front of Google's booth at the China International Import Expo earlier this month in Shanghai.

Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Updated at 9:40 a.m. ET

Several Google employees have gone public with their opposition to the tech giant's plans for building a search engine tailored to China's censorship demands.

The project, code-named Dragonfly, would block certain websites and search terms determined by the Chinese government — a move that, according to at least nine workers at Google, is tantamount to enabling "state surveillance."

"We are among thousands of employees who have raised our voices for months. International human rights organizations and investigative reporters have also sounded the alarm, emphasizing serious human rights concerns and repeatedly calling on Google to cancel the project," said the letter's initial signatories, who posted their open letter on Medium.

"So far," they added, "our leadership's response has been unsatisfactory."

In a draft shared with NPR before its publication, the employees initially claimed that the company's leadership had offered "no satisfactory answers" at all.

News of the program first surfaced in the website The Intercept, which reported in August that the customized search engine would "blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest."

Other news outlets, such as The New York Times, backed up the Intercept's reporting, noting Google's desire to tap the huge Chinese market — though adding that work on the project does not necessarily mean its release is imminent.

Google once ran a similarly censored version of its search engine in China, but it pulled out of the country in 2010 after friction with Beijing and significant backlash in the U.S.

The employees are not alone in expressing their dismay at reports of the new project's development. In fact, they released their letter the same day that Amnesty International launched a protest of its own. The human rights organization announced it would be reaching out to Google staff to add their names to a petition calling on CEO Sundar Pichai to kill the project before it can even get off the ground.

"This is a watershed moment for Google," Joe Westby, Amnesty's researcher on technology and human rights, said in a statement Tuesday. "As the world's number one search engine, it should be fighting for an internet where information is freely accessible to everyone, not backing the Chinese government's dystopian alternative."

This is also not the first time Google's leadership has gotten pushback from within its own ranks over company policies. The tech giant decided not to renew a contract with the Pentagon after employees revolted over a controversial project involving artificial intelligence for drone footage analysis.

"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 employees said in their letter Tuesday.

"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," they wrote.