The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Google employees go public to protest China search engine Dragonfly

More than 90 Google employees have joined a petition protesting the company’s plans to build a search engine that complies with China’s online censorship regime. An employee-led backlash against the project has been churning for months at the company, but Tuesday’s petition marks the first time workers at Google have used their names in a public document objecting to the plans.

The existence of the project, code-named Dragonfly, was confirmed by chief executive Sundar Pichai last month. While China has long blocked search queries for what it has deemed politically sensitive material, Pichai said Google could still help Chinese Internet users find other information, such as health treatments, or steer them away from scams.

But the project has drawn critics, who question Google’s corporate values and have raised concerns about the consequences of tech companies cooperating with authoritarian governments.

“Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be,” stated the petition, published on Medium. “The Chinese government certainly isn’t alone in its readiness to stifle freedom of expression, and to use surveillance to repress dissent. Dragonfly in China would establish a dangerous precedent at a volatile political moment, one that would make it harder for Google to deny other countries similar concessions.”

Amnesty International, which launched a “day of action” Tuesday protesting Dragonfly, has pushed Pichai to drop the program and issued an open call for people to sign a petition.

“This is a watershed moment for Google,” Joe Westby, Amnesty International’s researcher on technology and human rights, said in a news release. “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.”

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this year, more than 1,400 Google employees signed an internal letter demanding more transparency and accountability on the ethics of company projects, citing Dragonfly as an initiative that was developed without employee input. “Currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment,” the letter read.

Pichai has said that Google’s China-compliant search engine is not a done deal. “I take a long-term view of this,” he said during an event hosted by Wired in October. “And I think it’s important for us — given how important the market is, and how many users there are — we feel obliged to think hard about this problem and take a long-term view.”

If Google moves forward with Dragonfly, it could allow the company to reenter China’s online search market after nearly a decade.

But Google’s plans in China have drawn the scrutiny of U.S. lawmakers who have accused the company of being evasive about the prototype search engine. More broadly, the tech industry is facing an intense backlash over its data privacy practices, with some members of Congress proposing legislation that would place new restrictions on how tech companies collect and use customer data.