China: Human rights groups & employees call on Google not to launch censored search engine saying it would violate rights to expression & privacy

According to media reports, Google plans to launch a censored search engine in China that blocks sensitive information. In August 2018, 14 human rights organisations, including Access Now, Amnesty International, Committee to Protect Journalists, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Human Rights Watch, issued an open letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai calling on Google to refrain from launching a censored search engine in China (known as "Project Dragonfly"). The letter says that the censored search engine represents “an alarming capitulation by Google on human rights” and could result in the company “directly contributing to, or [becoming] complicit in, human rights violations.”

Google employees have also expressed concerns about Project Dragonfly, with more than 1,400 signing a letter calling for an ethics review structure that includes rank and file employee representatives; the appointment of ombudspeople; a plan for transparency that allows employees an ethical choice about what they work on; and ethical assessments of Google projects, including Dragonfly. In addition, at least one Google employee has resigned in protest.

On 27 November 2018, Google employees released another letter calling on Google to cancel Project Dragonfly.

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre invited Google to respond to allegations related to Project Dragonfly; it did not, however it sent a response to the civil society letter in October 2018 (see below). 

In July 2019, Buzzfeed reported that Google executive Karan Bhatia told the US Senate Judiciary Committee that the company has terminated Project Dragonfly. “A spokesman for Google later confirmed to the site that Google currently had no plans to launch search in China and that no work was being done to that end…"

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2 January 2020

USA: Former senior Google employee claims he was pushed out after advocating for a company human rights policy; incl. company comment

Author: Nitaha Tiku, Washington Post

"A top Google exec pushed the company to commit to human rights. Then Google pushed him out, he says," 2 Jan 2020

Google tasked Ross LaJeunesse with executing its plan to protect human rights in China, after Google announced a decade ago it would stop censoring search results there to safeguard security and free speech.... [LaJeunesse] devised a human rights program to formalize Google’s principles supporting free expression and privacy. He... is alleging that Google pushed him out for it in April... “I didn’t change. Google changed,” [said] LaJeunesse... “Don’t be evil” used to top the company’s mission statement. “Now when I think about ‘Don’t be evil,’ it’s been relegated to a footnote in the company’s statements.”... LaJeunesse modeled his human rights program on the way Google approached privacy and security issues... in functions such as supply chain, policy, and ethics and compliance, to... integrate, coordinate and prioritize human rights risk assessment... “We have an unwavering commitment to supporting human rights organizations and efforts,” said Google spokeswoman Jenn Kaiser, who said LaJeunesse’s departure was due to a “reorganization of our policy team.”

“It’s extremely important for people like Ross, who are making arguments for human rights inside the company, to have the support of the company itself — from the senior leadership on down.”... said David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression... Workers at major tech companies including Google, Amazon and Microsoft have increasingly raised ethical concerns as the products they helped develop have been put to use in controversial military applications or as a surveillance tool for law enforcement and repressive regimes... Several activist Google workers claim they were unfairly terminated recently because Google wanted to extinguish their dissent.

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17 July 2019

China: Google executive confirms termination of Project Dragonfly

Author: BBC (UK)

“Google's Project Dragonfly 'terminated' in China”, 17 July 2019

Google's controversial plan to launch a censored search engine in China has been "terminated", a company executive has said. The project was reported to have ceased late last year but rumours that it remained active persisted.

"We have terminated Project Dragonfly," Google executive Karan Bhatia told the US Senate Judiciary Committee. Buzzfeed, which reported the new comments, said it was the first public confirmation that Dragonfly had ended. A spokesman for Google later confirmed to the site that Google currently had no plans to launch search in China and that no work was being done to that end…

Dragonfly had attracted criticism as a potential means through which Chinese authorities could censor web content and monitor citizens' behaviour online.

In late 2018, Google seemed reluctant to confirm that development of the search engine had been completely stopped, despite growing pressure on the firm.

Work on Dragonfly at that point was "limited", chief executive Sundar Pichai told the US House Judiciary Committee in December.

According to documents obtained by investigative news site The Intercept, Dragonfly was launched as a company project in the spring of 2017.

The documents also suggested that Google engineers were at one point working on ways to filter out websites - including the BBC and Wikipedia - from search results, based on web censorship in China.

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20 December 2018

Google shareholder files petition with Alphabet to evaluate potential impact of ‘Project Dragonfly’ on investors

Author: Patrick Temple-West, Politico

"Google shareholder revolts over 'Project Dragonfly'," 19 Dec 2018

Azzad Asset Management, a socially responsible investment firm, on Monday filed a shareholder petition asking Google's parent company, Alphabet Inc., to evaluate the potential impact on investors if Google developed a censored search engine in China and to publish a report on its findings by Oct. 30, 2019. Google's work on the project may pose significant legal, reputational and financial risk to the company and its shareholders, the petition says. Critics say Project Dragonfly would further the Chinese government’s efforts to block the free flow of information to its citizens... Alphabet did not respond to requests for comment about the Azzad shareholder proposal... “When this issue was brought to our attention, it immediately raised concerns," said Joshua Brockwell, director of investment communications at Azzad, about Google's Project Dragonfly.

... The Project Dragonfly proposal is just one example of increasing investor scrutiny at big technology companies going into 2019. In October, New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and Arjuna Capital filed a shareholder proposal asking Facebook Inc. to publish a report about how the company oversees content published on its platform... Facebook spokesperson Nora Chan declined to comment but said the company will respond to such proposals in its annual shareholder materials. [also refers to McDonald's]

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17 December 2018

Google reportedly halts Chinese data collection program after ongoing pressure from employees to stop work on censored search engine

Author: Ryan Gallagher, The Intercept

"Google's secret China project "effectively ended" after internal confrontation," 17 Dec 2018 

Google has been forced to shut down a data analysis system it was using to develop a censored search engine for China after members of the company’s privacy team raised internal complaints that it had been kept secret from them... Google employees working on Dragonfly had been using a Beijing-based website [] to help develop blacklists for the censored search engine, which was designed to block out broad categories of information related to democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest, in accordance with strict rules on censorship in China... Members of the privacy team confronted the executives responsible for managing Dragonfly... Following a series of discussions, two sources said, Google engineers were told that they were no longer permitted to continue using the data to help develop Dragonfly, which has since had severe consequences for the project... Last week, Pichai, Google’s CEO, appeared before Congress... [and] stated that “right now” there were no plans to launch the search engine, though refused to rule it out in the future... Leaks about the plan and the extraordinary backlash that ensued both internally and externally appear to have forced company executives to shelve it at least in the short term, two sources familiar with the project said.

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17 December 2018

Google halted Chinese data collection program after Dragonfly backlash

Author: Russell Brandom, The Verge

Google has halted a data collection project in China and struck a major blow to the controversial Dragonfly project... Google is still researching Chinese web searches in an effort to launch a search engine that complies with the country’s censorship regime, although an official launch seems to have been indefinitely postponed. But in the face of widespread opposition within the company, Google executives shuttered one of the project’s most central data sources, making the ongoing work far more difficult... 265 was shut down shortly, and the remaining Dragonfly team is facing significant difficulties advancing the project without the data source. In the months that followed, Dragonfly has become a flashpoint for employee protests within Google, with more than 400 Google employees signing a letter in opposition to the project. A separate group of employees signed a similar letter in support of the project.

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11 December 2018

Google CEO says no plan to ‘launch’ censored search engine in China

Author: Joseph Cox, Motherboard

On Tuesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee on a host of different subjects, including perceived political bias in the company’s search results, artificial intelligence, and alleged manipulation of search results... During the hearing, Pichai responded to a question about DragonFly from US Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who asked how the company could censor search results from users seeking a “lifeline” of democracy and freedom. “Right now we have no plans to launch in China,” Pichai said... Pichai described DragonFly as a "limited effort internally," and said the company developed "what search could look like" in China. According to The Intercept, in July Ben Gomes, Google’s search engine chief, told staff that the plan was to launch the search product as soon as possible... During the hearing, a protester held a poster at the doorway, showing a Google logo in the style of the Chinese flag... “Getting access to information is an important human right,” Pichai said.

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11 December 2018

Open letter: Response to Google on Project Dragonfly, China & human rights

Author: Access Now, Article 19, Human Rights Watch & 57 other organisations

We are writing to ask you to ensure that Google drops Project Dragonfly and any plans to launch a censored search app in China, and to re-affirm the company’s 2010 commitment that it won’t provide censored search services in the country... Actively aiding China’s censorship and surveillance regime is likely to set a terrible precedent for human rights and press freedoms worldwide... Google’s letter makes several specific points that are directly contradicted by other sources... The letter also states that Google worked on Dragonfly simply to “explore” the possibility of reentering the Chinese search market... Yet media reports based on an internal Google memo suggest that the project was in a “pretty advanced state” and that the company had invested extensive resources to its development... Google’s decision to design and build Dragonfly in the first place is troubling. Google’s own AI Principles commit the company not to “design or deploy” (emphasis added) technologies whose purpose contravenes human rights. Given the company’s history in China and the assessment of its own security team, Google is well aware of the human rights implications of providing such an application... We welcome that Google has confirmed the company “takes seriously” its responsibility to respect human rights. However, the company has so far failed to explain how it reconciles that responsibility with the company’s decision to design a product purpose-built to undermine the rights to freedom of expression and privacy.

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1 December 2018

Commentary: Google needs to clarify its position on human rights

Author: Jack Poulson, The Intercept

"I quit Google over its censored Chinese search engine. The company needs to clarify its position on human rights." 1 Dec 2018

John Hennessey, the chair of ... Alphabet Inc., was recently asked whether Google providing a search engine in China that censored results would provide a net benefit for Chinese users... “Anybody who does business in China compromises some of their core values. Every single company, because the laws in China are quite a bit different than they are in our own country.” [he responded]... I worked as a research scientist at Google when Dragonfly was revealed — including to most Google employees — and resigned in protest after a month of internally fighting for clarification... It’s important to remember that Google’s 2010 withdrawal of its censored Chinese search engine was provoked by Beijing hacking the inner sanctum of Google’s software — their source code repository — to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents. Despite the obvious connection, Google’s leadership has entirely avoided clarifying Dragonfly’s surveillance concessions or addressing one of the main demands in a letter from a coalition of 14 human rights organizations... For my part, I would ask that Sundar Pichai honestly engage on what the chair of Google’s parent company has agreed is a compromise of some of Google’s “core values.” Google’s AI principles have committed the company to not “design or deploy … technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of … human rights.” 

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30 November 2018

Some Google staff members collect money for strike fund in case employees decide to walk out over Project Dragonfly

Author: Casey Newton, The Verge

"A looming strike over Project Dragonfly is putting new pressure on Google, 30 Nov 2018

Officially, Google’s preferred description for Project Dragonfly is “exploratory.” “This is an exploratory project and no decision has been made about whether we could or would launch,” the company said today... Google says “privacy reviews are non-negotiable and we never short-circuit the process.” But current and former Googlers have been riled by the revelations in Gallagher’s report. Brian Downey, who worked on projects related to Google’s 2006 move into China, called Thursday’s “the most jaw dropping of the Dragonfly stories.” The report suggests Google CEO Sundar Pichai lied to the public and to employees, Downey said... Meanwhile Liz Fong-Jones, a vocal internal critic who has pledged to quit Google in February if the company does not make significant policy changes, may be organizing a strike. In a Twitter thread, she asked fellow coworkers to put money into a strike fund that would help cover employees’ expenses during an extended walkout... What would trigger a strike? Fong-Jones suggested that Google would have to cross a red line — launching Dragonfly in China without a proper review of Dragonfly’s privacy implications.

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29 November 2018

Google spokesperson's statement re concerns over Project Dragonfly

Author: Google spokesperson, Twitter

This is an exploratory project and no decision has been made about whether we could or would launch. As we've explored the project, many privacy and security engineers have been consulted, as they always are. For any product, final launch is contingent on a full, final privacy review but we've never gotten to that point in development. Privacy reviews at Google are non-negotiable and we never short circuit the process.

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