Leading human rights groups are calling on Google to cancel its plan to launch a censored version of its search engine in China, which they said would violate the freedom of expression and privacy rights of millions of internet users in the country.
A coalition of 14 organizations — including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, Access Now, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology, PEN International, and Human Rights in China — issued the demand Tuesday in an open letter addressed to the internet giant’s CEO, Sundar Pichai. The groups said 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.”
The letter is the latest major development in an ongoing backlash over the censored search platform, code-named Dragonfly, which was first revealed by The Intercept earlier this month. The censored search engine would remove content that China’s ruling Communist Party regime views as sensitive, such as information about political dissidents, free speech, democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest. It would “blacklist sensitive queries” so that “no results will be shown” at all when people enter certain words or phrases, according to confidential Google documents.
Google launched a censored search engine in China in 2006, but ceased operating the service in the country in 2010, citing Chinese government efforts to limit free speech, block websites, and hack Google’s computer systems. The open letter released Tuesday asks Google to reaffirm the commitment it made in 2010 to no longer provide censored search in China.
“It is difficult not to conclude that Google is now willing to compromise its principles.”
The letter states: “If Google’s position has indeed changed, then this must be stated publicly, together with a clear explanation of how Google considers it can square such a decision with its responsibilities under international human rights standards and its own corporate values. Without these clarifications, it is difficult not to conclude that Google is now willing to compromise its principles to gain access to the Chinese market.”
The letter calls on Google to explain the steps it has taken to safeguard against human rights violations that could occur as a result of Dragonfly and raises concerns that the company will be “enlisted in surveillance abuses” because “users’ data would be much more vulnerable to [Chinese] government access.” Moreover, the letter said Google should guarantee protections for whistleblowers who speak out when they believe the company is not living up to its commitments on human rights. The whistleblowers “have been crucial in bringing ethical concerns over Google’s operations to public attention,” the letter states. “The protection of whistleblowers who disclose information that is clearly in the public interest is grounded in the rights to freedom of expression and access to information.”
Google has not yet issued any public statement about the China censorship, saying only that it will not address “speculation about future plans.” After four weeks of sustained reporting on Dragonfly, Google has not issued a single response to The Intercept and it has refused to answer dozens of questions from reporters on the issue. The company’s press office did not reply to a request for comment on this story.
It is not only journalists, however, who Google has ignored in the wake of the revelations. Amnesty International researchers told The Intercept they set up a phone call with the company to discuss concerns about Dragonfly, but they were stonewalled by members of Google’s human rights policy team, who said they would not talk about “leaks” of information related to the Chinese censorship. The open letter slams Google’s lack of public engagement on the matter, stating that the company’s “refusal to respond substantively to concerns over its reported plans for a Chinese search service falls short of the company’s purported commitment to accountability and transparency.”
“This is a world none of us have ever lived in before.”
Google is a member of the Global Network Initiative, or GNI, a digital rights organization that works with a coalition of companies, human rights groups, and academics. All members of the GNI agree to implement a set of principles on freedom of expression and privacy, which appear to prohibit complicity in the sort of broad censorship that is widespread in China. The principles state that member companies must “respect and work to protect the freedom of expression rights of users” when they are confronted with government demands to “remove content or otherwise limit access to communications, ideas and information in a manner inconsistent with internationally recognized laws and standards.”
Following the revelations about Dragonfly, sources said, members of the GNI’s board of directors – which includes representatives from Human Rights Watch, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the Committee to Protect Journalists – confronted Google representatives in a conference call about its censorship plans. But the Google officials were not responsive to the board’s concerns or forthcoming with information about Dragonfly, which caused frustration and anger within the GNI.
Every two years, members of the GNI are assessed for compliance with the group’s principles. One source said that Google’s conduct is due to be reviewed this year, and it is likely that its Chinese censorship plans will be closely scrutinized through that process. If the company is found to have violated the GNI’s principles its status as a member of the organization could potentially be revoked.
Inside Google, the company’s intense secrecy on Dragonfly has exacerbated tensions between employees and managers. Rank-and-file staff have circulated a letter saying that the project represents a moral and ethical crisis, and they have told bosses that they “urgently need more transparency, a seat at the table, and a commitment to clear and open processes.”
Pichai, Google’s CEO, told employees during a meeting on August 16 that he would “be transparent as we get closer to actually having a plan of record” and portrayed Dragonfly as an “exploratory” project. However, documents seen by The Intercept show that the project has been in development since early 2017, and the infrastructure to launch it has already been built. Last month, Google’s search engine chief Ben Gomes told employees working on Dragonfly that they should have the censored search engine ready to be “brought off the shelf and quickly deployed.”
Gomes informed the employees working on Dragonfly that the company was aiming to release the censored search platform within six to nine months, but that the schedule could change suddenly due to an ongoing U.S. trade war with China, which had slowed down Google’s negotiations with officials in Beijing, whose approval Google needs to launch the search engine. Sources said Gomes joked about the unpredictability of President Donald Trump while discussing the potential date the company would be able to roll out the censored search.
“This is a world none of us have ever lived in before,” Gomes said, according to the sources. “We need to be focused on what we want to enable, and then when the opening happens, we are ready for it.”