Google says it followed proper procedure during planning for the product, which the company continues to characterize as merely “exploratory.” Executives should stop exploring and recognize reality: By bringing its search back to China, Google would become a part of a censorship and surveillance apparatus that cuts against everything the company claims to stand for.
Chief executive Sundar Pichai confirmed Google’s plans for Dragonfly only in October; he claimed that the company could “serve well over 99 percent of queries” submitted by Chinese users. But that remaining 1 percent matters. To comply with China’s strictures, Google would have to not only withhold results from searchers about taboo topics, such as the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, but also block terms such as “student protest” or “human rights.”
And Google would do more than help China control what its people are allowed to see. It could help China see its people, too. Because core parts of the search system, according to the Intercept, would be based on the Chinese mainland, authorities could easily access people’s records. In a Dragonfly prototype, those records were linked to users’ personal phone numbers, and the app also tracked their locations. Google would have no effective legal mechanism for rejecting regime requests for data.
Google’s goal has always been to build a more open world through a more open Web. China’s goal has been just the opposite: cyber-sovereignty, or a siloed system of national Internets where each country dictates what makes it in and what makes it out. Google would give its imprimatur to this destructive vision. It would tell other countries that they, too, can have Google’s services on their own terms, without committing to the free flow of information. Over time, that flow would thin.
If Project Dragonfly’s future is as uncertain as Google claims, the company still has time to change its mind. By protesting a closed-off effort to bolster a closed-off system, employees are proving they remain committed to their company’s animating principles. Executives should show they are committed, too.