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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27 November 2018

We are Google employees. Google must drop Dragonfly.

Author: Google Employees Against Dragonfly, Medium

We are Google employees and we join Amnesty International in calling on Google to cancel project Dragonfly, Google’s effort to create a censored search engine for the Chinese market that enables state surveillance... We are among thousands of employees who have raised our voices for months... So far, our leadership’s response has been unsatisfactory... Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be...  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... Providing the Chinese government with ready access to user data, as required by Chinese law, would make Google complicit in oppression and human rights abuses... Dragonfly would also enable censorship and government-directed disinformation... 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. After a year of disappointments including Project Maven, Dragonfly, and Google’s support for abusers, we no longer believe this is the case. 

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26 October 2018

Response from Google to letter from human rights groups

Author: Kent Walker, Google

Google has been open about our desire to increase our ability to serve users in China and other countries. We are considering a variety of options for how to offer services in China in a way that is consistent with our mission. In the course of that exploration, we built an internal product to understand better what Google search in China might look like. But at this stage we are still not close to launching such a product, and whether we would or could do so remains unclear... As we explore these options, we value and take seriously our company's responsibility to respect human rights. In all our operations around the globe, we are committed to a process of responsible decision-making that respects the fundamental rights of our users and is consistent with our mission, our code of conduct, our Global Network Initiative obligations, our AI principles, and our privacy principles.

While recognizing our obligations under the law in each jurisdiction in which we operate, we also remain committed to promoting access to information as well as protecting the rights to freedom of expression and privacy for our users globally. Before we launch any search product in China, we intend to confer with GNI partners and other key stakeholders, and to carefully consider the feedback we receive.

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22 October 2018

Google CEO says tests of censored Chinese search engine turned out great and time has come to reevaluate decision to pull out from China

Author: Nitasha Tiku, Wired

"Google’s CEO Says Tests of Censored Chinese Search Engine Turned Out Great", 15 Oct 2018

Google’s internal tests developing a censored search engine in China have been very promising, CEO Sundar Pichai said on stage…as part of the WIRED 25 Summit…Pichai did not back away from Google’s controversial decision to build a censored search engine in China…codenamed Project Dragonfly, saying the potential to expose the world to more information is guiding Google’s push into China. “We are compelled by our mission [to] provide information to everyone, and [China is] 20 percent of the world's population.”

Pichai was careful to emphasize that this was a decision that weighs heavy on the company. “People don't understand fully, but you're always balancing a set of values,” in every new country, he said. Those values include providing access to information, freedom of expression, and user privacy. “But we also follow the rule of law in every country,” he said. This is a reversal of a decision from about eight years, when Google pulled its search engine, which was also censored, from the Chinese market. Pichai said the time had come to reevaluate that choice…

Pichai was just as non-committal when discussing Google’s work with the Department of Defense, in particular the company’s controversial contract, nicknamed Project Maven, to build AI and facial recognition technology that could be used for drone warfare…Earlier this month, Google also announced that it would not be bidding for Joint Enterprise Defense Initiative, or JEDI… [also mentions]

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Author: 王山, 法國國際廣播電台(RFI)

谷歌執行長皮採(Sundar Pichai)日前承認,他們正在研發可在中國使用的審查版搜尋引擎,這項被稱作“蜻蜓計劃”(Project Dragonfly)的研發仍在初級階段。

谷歌8年前因堅持“不作惡”的理念拒絕中共的審查而退出中國市場,但今年8月卻傳出要重返中國的消息。 “蜻蜓計劃”引發谷歌員工和人權人士的批評,他們擔心谷歌會變成科技幫兇,協助中國打壓言論自由。計劃9月曝光後,有超過1000名谷歌員工聯署公開信要求增加透明度;該公司高級科學家保爾森(Jack Poulson)也因此提出辭職。美國副總統彭斯本月初呼籲谷歌立即停止“蜻蜓計劃”,他指出谷歌的計劃損害中國消費者隱私。 16位美國國會議員早前致信谷歌,質詢該公司是否為了重返中國市場而準備配合中國政府信息過濾和監測用戶...



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Company response
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Author: 王山, 法国国际广播电台 (RFI)

谷歌执行长皮采(Sundar Pichai)日前承认,他们正在研发可在中国使用的审查版搜寻引擎,这项被称作“蜻蜓计划”(Project Dragonfly)的研发仍在初级阶段。

谷歌8年前因坚持“不作恶”的理念拒绝中共的审查而退出中国市场,但今年8月却传出要重返中国的消息。“蜻蜓计划”引发谷歌员工和人权人士的批评,他们担心谷歌会变成科技帮凶,协助中国打压言论自由。计划9月曝光后,有超过1000名谷歌员工联署公开信要求增加透明度;该公司高级科学家保尔森(Jack Poulson)也因此提出辞职。美国副总统彭斯本月初呼吁谷歌立即停止“蜻蜓计划”,他指出谷歌的计划损害中国消费者隐私。16位美国国会议员早前致信谷歌,质询该公司是否为了重返中国市场而准备配合中国政府信息过滤和监测用户...



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28 September 2018

Google executive says co. is "not close to launching a search product in China"

Author: Tim Bradshaw, Financial Times

"Google confirms 'Project Dragonfly' for China," 26 September 2018

A Google executive has for the first time publicly confirmed the existence of the company’s ‘Project Dragonfly’ venture to build new search tools for China, during a tense hearing with US lawmakers about online privacy. “There is a Project Dragonfly,” Keith Enright, Google’s chief privacy officer, told a Senate committee hearing..."We are not close to launching a search product in China.”... Hundreds of Alphabet employees have protested the idea that Google might censor search results and potentially give Chinese authorities access to individuals’ data.  “We design and launch products with an eye towards making the benefits of technology around the world as broadly as we can,” Mr Enright said, but any relaunch in China would be “consistent with our values in privacy and data protection”. “I take pride in Google’s record on human rights,” he added. 

Mr Enright was forced to defend what many see as a potential compromise of Google’s privacy values at the same time as pushing for new federal data protection legislation in the US that would override state-by-state rules... Despite opposition from Silicon Valley companies, California recently passed sweeping new privacy legislation, in the wake of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)... Alongside Google, officials from Apple, Amazon, Twitter, AT&T and Charter Communications all said they supported federal legislation— albeit with a variety of qualifiers that suggested they did not want any national rules to constrain the services they currently offer to consumers... [S]enators quizzed Apple and Google about apps for their smartphones that gathered data from children, and Amazon about its facial recognition technology. 

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Company non-response
18 September 2018

Google did not respond

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre invited Google to respond to a letter from human rights organizations calling on Google to refrain from launching a censored search engine in China, saying it would violate freedom of expression and right to privacy. It did not.

14 September 2018

Google prototype reportedly links searches to phone numbers raising concerns re surveillance

Author: Ryan Gallagher, The Intercept

"Google China prototype links searches to phone numbers," 14 Sept 2018

Google built a prototype of a censored search engine for China that links users’ searches to their personal phone numbers, thus making it easier for the Chinese government to monitor people’s queries... The search engine, codenamed Dragonfly, was designed for Android devices, and would remove content deemed sensitive by China’s ruling Communist Party regime, such as information about political dissidents, free speech, democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest... Previously undisclosed details about the plan... show that Google compiled a censorship blacklist that included terms such as “human rights,” “student protest,” and “Nobel Prize” in Mandarin... A central concern expressed by [human rights] groups is that, beyond... censorship, user data stored by Google on the Chinese mainland could be accessible to Chinese authorities, who routinely target political activists and journalists.

... [According to] Cynthia Wong, senior internet researcher with Human Rights Watch. “Linking searches to a phone number would make it much harder for people to avoid the kind of overreaching government surveillance that is pervasive in China.”... Sources familiar with Dragonfly said the search platform also appeared to have been tailored to replace weather and air pollution data with information provided directly by an unnamed source in Beijing... Google has so far declined to publicly address concerns about the Chinese censorship plans and did not respond to a request for comment on this story. In the six weeks since the first details about Dragonfly were revealed, the company has refused to engage with human rights groups, ignored dozens of reporters’ questions, and rebuffed U.S. senators.

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13 September 2018

Google employees are quitting over the company’s secretive China search project

Author: Caroline O' Donovan, BuzzFeed News

A list that names seven employees who say they quit their jobs at Google over a lack of corporate transparency is circulating within the company’s ranks...  One of the names on the list is that of former Google senior scientist Jack Poulson, who worked for the company in Toronto before resigning over Dragonfly last month... “I’m offended that no weight has been given to the human rights community having a consensus,” he said. “If you have coalition letter from 14 human rights organizations, and that can’t even make it into the discussions on the ethics behind a decision, I’d rather stand with the human rights organizations in this dispute.” Regarding Poulson’s departure, a spokesperson for Google said, “It is our policy to not comment on individual employees."... In his resignation letter, Poulson said he called for Google executives to address the Code Yellow demands. To date, that letter has over 1,700 signatures, and those interested in discussing issues of ethics and transparency have been planning to meet in person, sources said... “We can debate whether or not [Dragonfly] was going to be deployed, but that’s almost irrelevant because the AI ethics claim that they promise not even to design it,” Poulson said. “At what stage do engineers have a voice? … What I worry about is, once something is built and is ready to launch, the power has been transferred out of the engineers’ hands to a small group of people’s hands. You’ve effectively de-democratized the ethics of the development project.”

“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,” a spokesperson for Google said regarding this story.

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13 September 2018

Google's China plan spurs inquiry from U.S. lawmakers, staff departures

Author: David Shepardson & Paresh Dave, Reuters

A bipartisan group of 16 U.S. lawmakers asked Alphabet Inc’s Google... if it would comply with China’s internet censorship and surveillance policies should it re-enter the Chinese search engine market... More than 1,000 Google employees, six U.S. senators and at least fourteen human rights groups have written to the company expressing concern about its China ambitions... Jack Poulson, a research scientist who had worked for Google for more than two years, said he resigned because he felt the company was not honoring its commitment to human rights norms in designing the search app... Google declined to comment directly on the lawmakers’ letter or the resignations but said in a statement it had been “investing for many years to help Chinese users” and described its “work on search” for China as “exploratory” and “not close to launching.”... Members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, said in their letter on Thursday they had “serious concerns”... The letter asked if Google would “ensure that individual Chinese citizens or foreigners living in China, including Americans, will not be surveilled or targeted through Google applications.” 

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