Google Must End Censored Engine Project Dragonfly

The open letter (below) from civil society  is written in solidarity with over 1000 Google employees who signed a 27 November open letter calling for Dragonfly to be terminated, and follows on an August 2018 statement civil society statement on the project.

Dear Mr Pichai,

We are writing to ask you to ensure that Google drops Project Dragonfly and any plans to launch a censored search app in China, and to re-affirm the company’s 2010 commitment not to provide censored search services in the country.

We are disappointed that Google, in its letter dated 26 October, has failed to address the serious concerns of human rights groups over Project Dragonfly. Instead of addressing the substantive issues set out in the August letter, Google’s response – along with further details that have since emerged about Project Dragonfly – only heightens our fear that the company may knowingly compromise its commitments to human rights and freedom of expression, in exchange for access to the Chinese search market.

We stand with current and former Google employees speaking out over recent ethical scandals at the company, including Project Dragonfly. We wholeheartedly support the message from hundreds of Google employees asking Google to drop Dragonfly in their letter published 27 November, and commend their bravery in doing so publicly. We echo their statement that their “opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be.”

New details leaked to the media strongly suggest that if Google launches such a product it would facilitate repressive state censorship, surveillance, and other violations affecting nearly a billion people in China. Media reports state that Google has built a prototype that censors “blacklisted” search terms including “human rights”, “student protest” and “Nobel Prize”, including in journalistic content, and links users’ search queries to personal phone numbers. The app would also force users to sign in to use the service, track and store location information and search histories, and provide “unilateral access” to such data to an unnamed Chinese joint venture company, in line with China’s data localization law – allowing the government virtually unfettered access to this information.

Facilitating Chinese authorities’ access to personal data, as described in media reports, would be particularly reckless. If such features were launched, there is a real risk that Google would directly assist the Chinese government in arresting or imprisoning people simply for expressing their views online, making it complicit in human rights violations. This risk was identified by Google’s own security and privacy review team, according to former and current Google employees. Despite attempts to minimize internal scrutiny, a team tasked with assessing Dragonfly concluded that Google “would be expected to function in China as part of the ruling Communist Party’s authoritarian system of policing and surveillance,” according to a media report.

Actively aiding China’s censorship and surveillance regime is likely to set a terrible precedent for human rights and press freedoms worldwide. A recent Freedom House report warned that the Chinese government is actively promoting its model of pervasive digital censorship and surveillance around the world.

Many governments look to China’s example, and a major industry leader’s acquiescence to such demands will likely cause many other regimes to follow China’s lead, provoking a race to the bottom in standards. It would also undermine efforts by Google and other companies to resist government surveillance requests in order to protect users’ privacy and security, emboldening state intelligence and security agencies to demand greater access to user data.

Google’s letter makes several specific points that are directly contradicted by other sources. The letter states that it is “not close” to launching a search product in China, and that before doing so the company would consult with key stakeholders. However, as reported by the media, comments made in July by Ben Gomes, Google’s Head of Search, suggested the product could be “six to nine months [to launch]” and stressed the importance of having a product ready to be “brought off the shelf and quickly deployed” so that “we don’t miss that window if it ever comes.”

The letter also states that Google worked on Dragonfly simply to “explore” the possibility of re-entering the Chinese search market, and that it does not know whether it “would or could” launch such a product. Yet media reports based on an internal Google memo suggest that the project was in a “pretty advanced state” and that the company had invested extensive resources to its development.

Google’s decision to design and build Dragonfly in the first place is troubling. Google’s own AI Principles commit the company not to “design or deploy” (emphasis added) technologies whose purpose contravenes human rights. Given the company’s history in China and the assessment of its own security team, Google is well aware of the human rights implications of providing such an application. Moreover, Google’s letter fails to answer many questions about what steps, if any, the company is taking to safeguard human rights, including with respect to its current Chinese mobile app offerings, consistent with its commitments.

We urge Google to heed concerns from its own employees and from organizations and individuals across the political spectrum by abandoning Project Dragonfly and reaffirming its commitment not to provide censored search services in China. We also note that the letter makes no reference to whistle-blowers, and thus we urgently repeat our call to the company that it must publicly commit to protect the rights of whistle-blowers and other workers voicing rights concerns.

We welcome that Google has confirmed the company “takes seriously” its responsibility to respect human rights. However, the company has so far failed to explain how it reconciles that responsibility with the company’s decision to design a product purpose-built to undermine the rights to freedom of expression and privacy.