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A controversial new report is igniting questions about whether Google is still developing a search product for China — and renewing pressure on the tech giant to declare it won't collaborate with oppressive governments.
Google insisted Monday that the Intercept's report that some employees believe the company is continuing to work on a censored search engine for China is “inaccurate” and reaffirmed that it has “no plans” to launch a search product in China. “Team members have moved to new projects," the company said in a statement.
But that might not be enough for concerned employees — and human rights advocates, who are calling for a stronger promise from Google that it will never build tools for censorship.
“I still believe the project is dead, but we’re still waiting for a declaration from Google that censorship is unacceptable and that they will not collaborate with governments in the oppression of their people,” one source familiar with the search project, known as Dragonfly, told the Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher.
Anna Bacciarelli, a technology researcher at Amnesty International, said:
Google’s Project Dragonfly appears to be paused, but for how long? This is a worrying report. @sundarpichai needs to publicly confirm that Google has dropped Project Dragonfly for good, not just ‘for now’. https://t.co/KoQFGy9ZjH— Anna Bacciarelli (@a_bacci) March 4, 2019
The scrutiny might not end there: The renewed questions about Dragonfly could also increase pressure on lawmakers to act.
Google said in December it had no plans to launch the Chinese search engine after a groundswell of employee objections. But that was after lawmakers from both parties had warned the company about the serious national security and privacy implications of Dragonfly, which they said could make the company complicit in the Chinese government's human rights abuses and surveillance practices.
Any indication that Google is actually continuing to work on the project in secret could damage the company's position in Washington or even prompt new congressional inquiries.
After all, Google promised to be upfront with policymakers about plans to enter the China market. Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said during a December hearing the company would "fully transparent," including with policymakers, if the company ever did pursue search in China.
But it appears the search giant has been unable to convince its own employees that it will keep that commitment. Google employees began monitoring the company’s internal systems for information about the project, keeping tabs on repositories of code that were linked to Dragonfly, according to the Intercept.
As the Intercept’s Ryan Tate notes, it’s an extraordinary step for Google’s own employees to launch a probe into the project, one that underscores how concerned they are about the company’s secrecy.
Level of mistrust (and possible subterfuge) is amazing here: Googlers have spied ongoing work on the company's secret censored China search project, Dragonfly, despite prior workers having been assigned away from it, @rj_gallagher reports: https://t.co/O93lR6bKJR— Ryan Tate (@ryantate) March 4, 2019
The employees said there were more than 400 changes to the code between January and February of this year — which they told the Intercept indicates continued development on Dragonfly. They also say there are about 100 workers still allocated to the “cost center” associated with Dragonfly.
Google sources with knowledge of Dragonfly told the Intercept that the code changes could also be attributed to employees who have continued to wrap up aspects of the work they were doing.
New questions about Dragonfly only add to the firestorm Google is facing in Washington over human rights. A group of lawmakers called on the company last week to remove a Saudi government app that allows men to track women’s locations from its app store. However, Insider reports the company is refusing to do so on the grounds that it does not violate its terms of service.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), one of the lawmakers who called on Google to delete the app, criticized the company on Twitter:
Disappointed to hear that Google won't take steps to stand up against an app that treats women like property. If oppression doesn't violate your terms of agreement, you should change the terms. https://t.co/XvQGpmoxHV— Jackie Speier (@JackieSpeier) March 4, 2019
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BITS: Google conducted a pay analysis that revealed that the company was underpaying more men than women for similar work as lower-level software engineers, The Washington Post’s Hamza Shaban reported. The specific number of men at Google who received additional compensation as a result of the study was not disclosed, but the company said in a blog post that it gave $9.7 million in adjustments to 10,677 employees. The 2018 pay study encompassed 91 percent of Google employees.
The tech industry has faced repeated criticism for its lack of diversity. Google said the analysis doesn’t provide a full picture of the way women and minorities who are underrepresented are paid, my colleague reported. “Our pay equity analysis ensures that compensation is fair for employees in the same job, at the same level, location and performance. But we know that’s only part of the story,” Lauren Barbato, Google’s lead analyst for pay equity, people analytics, said in the blog post. “Because leveling, performance ratings, and promotion impact pay, this year, we are undertaking a comprehensive review of these processes to make sure the outcomes are fair and equitable for all employees.”
NIBBLES: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said congressional Democrats plan to present legislation to restore net neutrality rules, Reuters's David Shepardson reported. The piece of legislation is set to be unveiled tomorrow. The Federal Communications Commission scrapped Obama-era rules that prohibited Internet providers from slowing down, blocking or prioritizing content on the Internet. House Democrats will work with Democrats in the Senate to pass a bill called Save The Internet Act to reinstate net neutrality rules, Pelosi said in a letter to Democratic members of the House.
“The Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, voted in May 2018 to reinstate the net neutrality rules, but the House did not take up the issue before Congress adjourned last year,” Shepardson wrote. “A U.S. federal appeals court last month held lengthy oral arguments in a legal challenge to the FCC’s decision to repeal the net neutrality rules.”
BYTES: The campaigns of Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are turning to the same online platform developed in the aftermath of the 2016 election to better organize volunteers, the Wall Street Journal's Julie Bykowicz reported. MobilizeAmerica, a two-year-old company founded by Democratic preidential campaign veterans Alfred Johnson and Allen Kramer, creates a centralized system that allows volunteers sign up for shifts calling voters or door-knocking.
The political parties are constantly in campaign tech arms race, and MobilizeAmerica could be the Democrats' answer to the broad data-swapping system that Republicans deployed in 2016. Sabrina Singh, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, told the Journal that MobilizeAmerica “did something that we have wanted for so long, centralizing volunteer opportunities.”
Campaigns and organizations pay from $50 to $5,000 per month for access to the platform — the price varies based on an organization's size and how it uses the service. MobilizeAmerica “gives Democratic campaigns and progressive causes a centralized sign-up system for events, door-knocking and shifts calling and texting voters,” the Journal reported. “The volunteers’ information is saved on the MobilizeAmerica website, and they are exposed to other Democratic work if they click through events listings.”
-- T-Mobile acknowledged in a letter to congressional Democrats last month that its spending at President Trump’s Washington hotel spiked after its the announcement of its merger with Sprint, according to my colleagues David A. Farenthold and Jonathan O’Connell. Executives have spent about $195,000 at the property since then.
That paid for “meeting space, catering, business center services, audio/visual equipment rental [and] lodging,” according to a letter from Anthony Russo, T-Mobile USA’s vice president of federal legislative affairs. That’s about 14 percent of T-Mobile’s $1.4 million in total corporate spending on D.C.-area hotels during the 10-month period, Russo said. About half of that was spent at Hilton hotels, he noted.
The letter was a response to a request from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). (My colleagues initially reported in January that the day after the mega-deal was announced, 9 executives had reservations at the hotel).
— Major tech companies like Google and Facebook were once top sponsors at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Now Big Tech is the “boogeyman,” according to the New York Times's Michael M. Grynbaum. “Facebook, Google and Twitter are pushing a left-wing social agenda while marshaling their marketing power to shut conservative voices out of the marketplace,” said Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, during a session with the title “Blocked: This Panel Has Been Removed for Conservative Content.”
— AT&T has started to overhaul WarnerMedia, which could result in layoffs, according to the Wall Street Journal's Joe Flint. “The consolidation of several units within WarnerMedia is expected to lead to significant staff reductions, people familiar with the matter said,” the Journal reported. “Cutting costs and streamlining operations is crucial for AT&T, which is currently saddled with about $170 billion in net debt, the most of any nonfinancial U.S. company.”
— More technology news from the private sector:
— Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), who chairs the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law, told the Financial Times's Kiran Stacey that the United States should consider a kind of Glass-Steagall legislation for the tech industry. The Glass-Steagall Act enacted in 1933 in effect separated commercial banking from investment banking. Cicilline said regulation might be necessary to increase competition in the tech industry. “This could work, he said, by forcing social media companies to run their platforms entirely separately from the parts of their business that sell customer data,” the Financial Times reported.
— More technology news from the public sector:
— A group of working mothers at Amazon want the company to offer backup day care, Bloomberg News's Spencer Soper and Rebecca Greenfield reported. The group is set to meet with senior managers over the issue in coming weeks. “They want the company to provide backup day care for those times when regular childcare arrangements fall through,” according to Bloomberg News. “They will also urge human resources to start collecting data about day care challenges — via interviews with incoming and departing employees — to eliminate the management blind spot and prevent such problems from festering any longer.” The group is called the Momazonians and includes more than 1,800 employees. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
— More news about tech workforce and culture:
— Gavin de Becker, a security consultant for Bezos, is working on a report that will argue that the National Enquirer published an exposé of Bezos's relationship with former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez to seek favor with Saudi investors, Vanity Fair's Gabriel Sherman reported. “Parent company American Media reportedly lost $72 million last year, and the Enquirer’s circulation fell 18 percent to about 265,000. In January, the company raised $460 million to refinance its crushing debt load,” Sherman wrote. “The theory is that Saudi Arabia, either directly or indirectly, bailed out A.M.I. as a reward for humiliating an enemy of the regime.”
— More tech news generating buzz around the Web:
— News about tech incidents and blunders:
— Today in funding news:
- The Georgetown University Law Center's Institute for Technology Law and Policy organizes a debate and discussion on the T-Mobile and Sprint merger.
- House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on “Maintaining U.S. leadership in science and technology” tomorrow.
- The Brookings Institution holds an event titled “How can public policy keep up with technological change?” on March 12.
- The Brookings Institution holds a discussion on “How China and the U.S. are advancing artificial intelligence” on March 12.
- The Brookings Institution holds a discussion on online consumer privacy on March 14.
More than 1,500 exotic turtles found duct-taped in luggage:
“This is what we're seeing every day:” Another long night on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump serves fast food to North Dakota State football championship team: