SOME GOOGLE employees still seem to believe in the slogan their company dropped from the top of its code of conduct this year: Don’t be evil.
The Intercept reported last week that leaders at Google tried to push Project Dragonfly, the company’s development of a censored search engine for the Chinese market, while keeping it as quiet as possible — and that they tried to sideline the typical privacy review process to do it. Days before the Intercept published its reporting, hundreds of employees publicly signed on to a letter calling on Google to drop Dragonfly. Now, staffers have raised more than $200,000 in pledges to fund a possible strike.
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.