Google Faces Renewed Protests and Criticism Over China Search Project


Google is facing a new campaign of global protests over its plan to launch a censored version of its search engine in China.

On Friday, a coalition of Chinese, Tibetan, Uighur, and human rights groups organized demonstrations outside Google’s offices in the U.S., U.K., Canada, India, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Sweden, Switzerland, and Denmark.

Google designed the Chinese search engine, code-named Dragonfly, to blacklist information about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest, in accordance with strict rules on censorship in China that are enforced by the country’s authoritarian Communist Party government.

In December, The Intercept revealed that an internal dispute had forced Google to shut down a data analysis system that it was using to develop the search engine. This had “effectively ended” the project, sources said, because the company’s engineers no longer had the tools they needed to build it.

But Google bosses have not publicly stated that they will cease development of Dragonfly. And the company’s CEO Sundar Pichai has refused to rule out potentially launching the search engine some time in the future, though he has insisted that there are no current plans to do so. The organizers of Friday’s protests — which were timed to coincide with Internet Freedom Day — said that they would continue to demonstrate “until Google executives confirm that Project Dragonfly has been canceled, once and for all.”

Google “should be connecting the world through the sharing of information, not facilitating human rights abuses by a repressive government determined to crush all forms of peaceful online dissent,” said Gloria Montgomery, director at Tibet Society UK. “Google’s directors must urgently take heed of calls from employees and tens of thousands of global citizens demanding that they immediately halt project Dragonfly. If they don’t, Google risks irreversible damage to its reputation.”

“Google risks irreversible damage to its reputation.”

In August last year, 170 Tibet groups sent a letter to Pichai, stating that the human rights situation in China had worsened in recent years and that Dragonfly would “legitimize the repressive regime of the Chinese government and support the limiting of civil and political freedoms and promoting [of] distorted information.” Pichai did not issue any response, which the groups said has only heightened their concerns. (Tibet is governed as an autonomous region of China; activists have said that the Chinese government routinely violates human rights there, engaging in political and religious repression.)

Google has faced protests over Dragonfly from all corners. Human rights groups, U.S. senators from both major political parties, Vice President Mike Pence, and the company’s own employees and shareholders have formed an unlikely alliance in opposition to the plan.

In recent weeks, pressure on Google has continued to mount. On January 3, prominent Google engineer Liz Fong-Jones announced she would be resigning from the internet giant after 11 years. Fong-Jones was a vocal critic of Dragonfly and other controversial Google initiatives, such as Project Maven, the company’s contract to develop artificial intelligence for U.S. military drones. She said she had decided that she could no longer work for Google because she was dissatisfied with its direction and “lack of accountability and oversight.”

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Google was blasted by a group of 49 investors said to represent some $700 billion in assets. Citing Dragonfly and other recent scandals in Silicon Valley, the investors called on Google, Apple, Facebook, and other tech giants to “respect users’ right to privacy and freedom of expression.”

Without the necessary oversight and due diligence in these areas, the investors said, companies “may cause or contribute to a wide range of human rights abuses affecting billions of people worldwide.” The investors called on the companies to adhere to internationally recognized human rights laws and standards, and said the tech giants should implement the principles set out by the Global Network Initiative, a digital rights organization.

Google employees who worked on Dragonfly previously told The Intercept that company executives brushed aside human rights concerns during development of the search engine and related smartphone apps. In December, the internet giant sought to address some of these criticisms by making changes to its internal review processes. The company’s global affairs chief, Kent Walker, wrote in a blog post that the company had introduced a new ethics training course for employees and would establish a new group of “user researchers, social scientists, ethicists, human rights specialists, policy and privacy advisers, and legal experts” to assess new projects, products, and deals.

Three Google employees told The Intercept that they were skeptical about the new process, however. They each pointed out that, according to Walker’s blog post, “the most complex and difficult issues” would be left to a “council of senior executives” — meaning that the balance of power on controversial projects would remain with a small handful of company bosses, with rank-and-file employees still largely sidelined.

“It’s superficial,” one current Google engineer told The Intercept. “We still need more accountability, more transparency, and a seat at the table when it comes to the big decisions — otherwise there will be nothing to stop projects like Dragonfly from being railroaded through again in the future.”

Google did not respond to a request for comment.