Amnesty International has announced a new protest campaign calling on Google to cancel its controversial plan to launch a censored search engine in China.
The human rights group on Monday launched a petition against the search engine and said that on Tuesday, it will stage demonstrations outside Google offices in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, and Spain. Google’s plan for China would “irreparably damage internet users’ trust in the tech company,” Amnesty said in statement, and “would set a dangerous precedent for tech companies enabling rights abuses by governments.”
As The Intercept first reported in August, Google secretly developed the censored search engine as part of a project code-named Dragonfly. It was designed to blacklist words and phrases such as “human rights,” “Nobel Prize,” and “student protest.” The search platform would link Chinese users’ search records to their cellphone numbers and share people’s search histories with a Chinese partner company. The search records would in turn be accessible to China’s authoritarian government, which has broad surveillance and data-seizing powers that it routinely uses to identify and arrest activists and critics.
“This is a watershed moment for Google,” said Joe Westby, Amnesty International’s researcher on technology and human rights. “As the world’s No. 1 search engine, it should be fighting for an internet where information is freely accessible to everyone, not backing the Chinese government’s dystopian alternative.”
“This is a watershed moment for Google.”
He added, “Many of Google’s own staff have spoken out against these plans, unwilling to play a role in the Chinese government’s manipulation of information and persecution of dissidents. Their courageous and principled stance puts Google’s leadership to shame. Today we are standing with Google staff and asking them to join us in calling on [Google CEO] Sundar Pichai to drop Project Dragonfly and reaffirm Google’s commitment to human rights.”
In late August, Amnesty and 13 other leading human rights groups wrote to Google, saying that they believed the company would be “directly contributing to, or [becoming] complicit in, human rights violations” if it went ahead with the plan. Sources said that Google recently responded to the groups with an “unsatisfactory” letter that did not address their concerns.
The latest development will continue to put pressure on Google executives over the search engine project. In recent months, more than 1,400 Google employees signed a letter calling for the plan to be subject to an ethics review, and a senior research scientist quit the company in protest. Meanwhile, U.S. senators requested more information from Google about Dragonfly, calling it “deeply troubling.” And Vice President Mike Pence took the extraordinary step of demanding that the company “immediately end” Dragonfly’s development.
Pichai has sought to calm the backlash by portraying Dragonfly as an “experiment.” However, he has also defended his vision for the plan, saying that Google is “compelled by our mission [to] provide information to everyone, and [China is] 20 percent of the world’s population.” A leaked transcript obtained by The Intercept revealed that the company had aimed to launch the search engine between January and April 2019.
Google previously launched a censored search engine in China in 2006 but stopped operating the service in 2010, saying it could no longer tolerate the extent of the Chinese government’s censorship and targeting of activists. The company’s executives are yet to explain why they feel the concerns they had in 2010 are no longer applicable, especially given that censorship and crackdowns on human rights in China have worsened in recent years.
According to Amnesty, launching Dragonfly would risk “legitimizing China’s vision of the internet, which gives governments absolute control over what information is available to the population and the power to freely access all online data about their citizens.” To promote its protest campaign, the group has published a satirical Google recruitment video for Dragonfly, which states that applicants who want to work on the project must have “great coding skills, five years’ experience, and absolutely no morals.”
Westby, the Amnesty researcher, said that Google should “stop equivocating and make a decision” about whether it is going to proceed with Dragonfly.
“Will [Google] defend a free and open internet for people globally? Or will it help create a world where some people in some countries are shut out from the benefits of the internet and routinely have their rights undermined online?” asked Westby.
“If Google is happy to capitulate to the Chinese government’s draconian rules on censorship,” he added, “what’s to stop it cooperating with other repressive governments who control the flow of information and keep tabs on their citizens? As a market leader, Google knows its actions will set a precedent for other tech companies. Sundar Pichai must do the right thing and drop Project Dragonfly for good.”
Google did not respond to a request for comment.
Update: Nov. 27, 2018, 9:00 a.m. EST.
A group of 90 Google employees published an open letter Tuesday morning in support of Amnesty’s campaign. “We refuse to build technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be,” the employees say, adding that company bosses have provided “no satisfactory answers” in response to human rights concerns. “We join with Amnesty International in demanding that Dragonfly be canceled. We also demand that leadership commit to transparency, clear communication, and real accountability. We deserve to know what we’re building and we deserve a say in these significant decisions.”