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Google employees push back over plans to build a censored search engine for China

"Google employees need to know what we're building.”

by David Gilbert
Aug 17 2018, 2:53pm

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A war is raging inside Google over the company’s plans to launch a censored version of its search engine in China.

Thousands of its employees reportedly oppose the move.

A letter condemning the plan has been circulated on Google’s internal communication systems, signed by more than 1,400 employees, according to the New York Times, which first reported the uproar.

According to the letter, Project Dragonfly, as the secret operation is known, raised “urgent moral and ethical questions” and the signatories asked Google’s leadership to be more transparent on the move.

“Currently we do not have the information required to make ethically informed decisions about our work," the letter said. “We urgently need more transparency, a seat at the table, and a commitment to clear and open processes: Google employees need to know what we're building.”

Earlier this week, Brandon Downey, a former Google engineer who says he worked on an earlier version of its censored Chinese search platform, published an essay criticizing the plans.

“I want to say I’m sorry for helping to do this,” Downey wrote. “I don’t know how much this contributed to strengthening political support for the censorship regime in [China], but it was wrong.”

Dragonfly, first exposed by a whistleblower speaking to the Intercept, is a tool that has been under development for more than a year, but only a couple hundred employees inside Google knew of its existence.

The app would conform to the Chinese government’s strict censorship rules and remove content on sensitive topics such as political dissidents, free speech, democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest.

READ: Google wants back into China — and it will censor search results to get there

After its existence was made public, a source at Google said it was unclear if the product would ever get the green light.

At a Thursday meeting, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the company is “not close” to launching a search product in China but added that it was very interested in the market and that the company is “exploring many options,” according to sources speaking to CNBC.

Pichai added that Google had been “very open about our desire to do more in China" and that the team “has been in an exploration stage for quite a while now.”

Back in June 2016, Pichai explicitly laid out his desire to re-enter the Chinese market. “I care about servicing users globally in every corner,” the CEO said at the Code Conference. “Google is for everyone. We want to be in China serving Chinese users.”

The company already has three offices in China, including an AI research center in Beijing. It has also launched a number of apps in China in the past 12 months.

Google pulled out of the Chinese search market in 2010, saying it “could no longer continue censoring our results.” In the intervening eight years, China’s surveillance and censorship of the internet have greatly expanded, but it appears the allure of a potential 750 million new customers was too much for Google to resist.

Employees have previously exerted their influence over the company’s decision-making when they opposed the controversial contract with the Pentagon to use Google’s AI technology to boost the accuracy of drone software used on the battlefield.

Google has yet to comment publicly on the issue.

Cover image: The Google Inc. logo is illuminated in front of Google's Beijing office on August 7, 2018. (VCG via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on VICE News US.