Need to Know: Google Faces Scrutiny Over Plans for Censored Search Engine in China

Need to Know: Google Faces Scrutiny Over Plans for Censored Search Engine in China

by Zach Harris
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NEWS
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Google has been working to quietly re-enter the massive market after withdrawing in 2010, but concessions to Chinese censorship rules have employees up in arms.

1,400 employees at Google have joined together to challenge the tech monolith’s recently leaked plans to introduce a censored search engine in China. Complaining that Google management has kept workers in the dark about program’s goals, employees are now challenging the company’s apparent decision to cave to Chinese government censorship.

According to the New York Times, Google employees are worried that they have been unwittingly working to facilitate a strictly-controlled internet for Chinese users that could block search access to topics such as human rights and environmental protection. Nicknamed ‘Dragonfly,’ the project is a 180-degree turn from Google’s past experience in China. In 2010, the world’s most popular search engine pulled out of the country, specifically citing government censorship as the impetus.

“Currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment,” reads the protest letter from Google employees. “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.”

The latest scandal at Silicon Valley’s golden child comes just months after Google employees spoke out about the company’s involvement in an initiative developing artificial intelligence technology for the U.S. Defense Department. After workers expressed outrage at their unbeknownst participation in supporting the American war machine, Google leadership pulled the plug on that program earlier this year and implemented a new set of company-wide guidelines covering its development of A.I. technology.

In the letter leaked to the press this week, hundreds of signatories questioned if the company’s recently revised morality clause was actually effective if it allowed for the construction of Dragonfly.

“Our industry has entered a new era of ethical responsibility: the choices we make matter on a global scale. Yet most of us only learned about project Dragonfly through news reports in early August,” the letter reads. “That the decision to build Dragonfly was made in secret, and progressed even with the AI Principles in place makes clear that the Principles alone are not enough.”

At a staff meeting on Thursday, Google employees questioned CEO Sundar Pichai about implications of the program. Pichai initially offered a comment presenting the Dragonfly project as an endeavor that is still years away, but quickly stopped taking questions after his responses were made public on Twitter. Throughout the Dragonfly ordeal and Google’s past problems with Pentagon contracts, employees have consistently relied on the media, both social and traditional, to disseminate their worries and requests.

In the letter sent to management this week, Google employees put forth a list of four demands, pushing the company to create a ethics review board with input from rank-and-file workers, appoint ombudspeople to oversee potential company malfeasance, a clear plan for transparency, and an “ethical assessment” of already implemented projects like Dragonfly.

As a direct result of government censorship, American internet giants including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are all currently banned in China.


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Zach Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared on Noisey, First We Feast, and Jenkem Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @10000youtubes complaining about NBA referees.


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