Hundreds of Google Employees Tell Bosses to Cancel Censored Search Amid Worldwide Protests

Joining a day of protest led by Amnesty International, the workers have gone public with a letter rebuking their bosses.

Amnesty International activists hold a giant dragonfly-shaped balloon with a banner reading "Google, do not censor in China, no to the Dragonfly project" during a protest outside the Google headquarters in Madrid on November 27, 2018 as part of a campaign calling on Google to cancel its controversial plan to launch a censored search engine in China. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)        (Photo credit should read OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP/Getty Images)
Amnesty International activists hold a giant dragonfly-shaped balloon outside Google headquarters in Madrid on Nov. 27, 2018 as part of a campaign calling on Google to cancel its controversial plan to launch a censored search engine in China. Photo: Oscar Del Pozo/AFP/Getty Images

More than 240 Google employees have signed an open letter calling on the company to abandon its plan for a censored search engine in China, as protesters took to the streets in eight cities to condemn the secretive project.

The letter was published Tuesday morning, signed by a group of 11 Google engineers, managers, and researchers. By early evening, a further 230 employees had added their names to the letter in an extraordinary public display of anger and frustration with Google’s management over the censored search plan, known as Dragonfly.

The search engine was designed by Google to censor phrases about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest, in accordance with strict censorship rules enforced by China’s authoritarian government. The search platform would link Chinese users’ search records to their cellphone numbers and share people’s search histories with a Chinese partner company — meaning that Chinese security agencies, which routinely target activists and critics, could obtain the data.

The Google employees said on Tuesday that they believed the company was no longer “willing to place its values above its profits.” They wrote that the Chinese search engine would “make Google complicit in oppression and human rights abuses” and “enable censorship and government-directed disinformation.” They added:

Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be. The Chinese government certainly isn’t alone in its readiness to stifle freedom of expression, and to use surveillance to repress dissent. 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.

In August, 1,400 Google employees protested Dragonfly privately, with many anonymously signing a letter that was circulated inside the company. Organizers of the protests have until now sought to keep their discontent in-house, feeling that negotiating with management away from the media would be the best way to address their concerns, sources said.

But the organizers have become increasingly dissatisfied with company executives who have refused to answer questions about Dragonfly and engage on human rights issues. That is one of the principal reasons why the employees decided on Tuesday to go public with a new letter, which was not signed anonymously, in what amounted to an unprecedented rebuke to company bosses.

The authors said they supported a wave of protests against Dragonfly organized by the human rights group Amnesty International, which took place on Tuesday outside Google offices in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, and Spain.

Amnesty activists were photographed outside Google buildings holding placards that called on the company to “listen to your concerned employees,” “don’t be a brick in the Chinese firewall,” and “don’t contribute to internet censorship in China.” In Madrid, the group inflated a giant dragonfly-shaped balloon and floated it outside Google’s offices in the city.

Amnesty published a petition calling on Google to cancel the censored search engine. The group said in a statement that the platform would “irreparably damage internet users’ trust” in Google and “set a dangerous precedent for tech companies enabling rights abuses by governments.”

Google has faced a growing number of protests as its employees have become increasingly organized and emboldened. Earlier this month, the company’s employees staged a mass walkout over management’s handling of sexual harassment allegations and other grievances. In April, thousands of employees raised concerns about a project that involved the development of artificial intelligence for U.S. military drones.

Google did not have any comment on the employee letter or the Amnesty protests. The company said in a boilerplate statement that its “work on search has been exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China.”

As The Intercept has previously reported, the company’s search chief privately told employees that Google’s aim was to launch the search engine between January and April 2019. “We have to be focused on what we want to enable,” said Ben Gomes. “And then when the opening happens, we are ready for it.” 

Update: Nov. 28, 2018, 4:44 p.m. EST.

A total of 445 Google employees have now signed the open letter calling on the company to cancel the Dragonfly project. The list includes a large number of senior staff at the company, including two directors, 36 managers, and 70 senior engineers. Google executives are yet to issue any public response.

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