The Industry

Hundreds of Employees Demand Google Stop Work on Censored Search Engine for China

Project Dragonfly aims to create a search engine that the Chinese government would be able to control.
Project Dragonfly aims to create a search engine that the Chinese government would be able to control. JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

Hundreds of Google employees have signed an open letter published Tuesday on Medium demanding that the company cease work on Project Dragonfly, which is aimed at creating a search engine that the Chinese government would be able to control to censor certain results and surveil users. “International human rights organizations and investigative reporters have also sounded the alarm, emphasizing serious human rights concerns and repeatedly calling on Google to cancel the project,” the letter reads in part. “So far, our leadership’s response has been unsatisfactory.”

Google has kept much of Project Dragonfly under wraps, but news outlets like the Intercept have obtained documents revealing some of the details. The search engine reportedly would block websites having to do with democracy and political dissidents and also blacklist terms like “human rights.” One of the prototypes also reportedly has the capability to link searches to users’ phone numbers. Organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised concerns about the project.

The letter from employees argues that Google’s work on Project Dragonfly would render the company complicit in the Chinese government’s human rights abuses and make it easier for other countries to demand similar controls from the company. “Many of us accepted employment at Google with the company’s values in mind, including its previous position on Chinese censorship and surveillance, and an understanding that Google was a company willing to place its values above its profits,” the letter reads. “After a year of disappointments including Project Maven, Dragonfly, and Google’s support for abusers, we no longer believe this is the case. This is why we’re taking a stand.” Google initially withdrew its search services from China in 2010 over censorship and cybersecurity concerns.

More than a thousand employees signed a similar internal petition to end Project Dragonfly in August. With Tuesday’s letter, they are taking a more public stand on the issue.

CEO Sundar Pichai previously defended the project by claiming that the resulting search engine could “serve well over 99 percent of queries.” The company provided a statement on this latest letter to the Verge:

We’ve been investing for many years to help Chinese users, from developing Android, through mobile apps such as Google Translate and Files Go, and our developer tools. But our work on search has been exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China.

Activism among Google employees has attracted considerable attention as of late. Thousands of employees at more than 40 Google offices participated in a walkout at the beginning of November in reaction to a New York Times investigation that found that the company had been giving lucrative exit packages to executives who had been credibly accused of sexual misconduct. (CNBC reports that two of the original signers of Tuesday’s letter were among the core group of organizers for the walkout.) Google ultimately ended its forced arbitration policies for sexual harassment claims and updated its trainings and reporting mechanisms for such misconduct. The company also plans to end its contract with the Pentagon’s Project Maven after employees filed petitions and resigned over concerns that Google’s A.I. technology would eventually be used for weapons.