Over 130 Google employees on Tuesday published an open letter advocating against Project Dragonfly, the company's initiative to build a censored version of Search for China. The timing of the publication was coordinated with Amnesty International which itself announced a global day of action against Project Dragonfly earlier today. "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 authors wrote, highlighting that sentiment as the main message of the open letter.
Continued investments in Project Dragonfly that would eventually lead to a consumer-grade product would set "a dangerous precedent," the Googlers argued, maintaining there's nothing stopping other oppressive regimes from requesting custom-built, censored versions of Search and other Google services should the firm cave to Beijing. Despite the main sentiment behind the communication, the activist employees made it a point to highlight how China has a well-documented history of public oppression, censorship, and human right abuses. Should Google provide the communist regime with identifiable user data, as is required by law in the Far Eastern country, the Alphabet-owned company would be complicit in those crimes, the activists believe, describing the response Google's leadership gave to those concerns so far as "unsatisfactory."
The signed employees, mostly software engineers, described their new public communication as a desperate attempt to speak up about ethical concerns at the company, claiming they all joined Google because they believed the firm would not prioritize profits over values but have now changed their minds on the matter following the tech juggernaut's initial response to overwhelming public criticism stemming from the existence of Project Dragonfly. The activist employees are now outright demanding for the initiative to be scrapped and are also asking for Google management to vow to become more transparent with such efforts moving forward and accept "real accountability" because it's "too powerful" not to be held responsible for such potentially devastating actions. "We deserve to know what we're building and we deserve a say in these significant decisions," the authors concluded.
Besides joining in their calls for the controversial effort to be canceled, Amnesty International also launched an online petition where any individual from all over the world can do the same, while arguing that the company's immoral pursuit of growth is building toward a "dystopian society" full off oppression and aggressive government propaganda. The Mountain View, California-based technology giant has yet to respond to the newly published letter in any capacity.
Background: The open letter references a number of recent scandals that put Google's corporate values into question, including Project Maven, a controversial initiative meant to weaponize artificial intelligence technologies in collaboration with the Pentagon. Google decided not to renew its Project Maven contract earlier this year after a wave of employee activism. The exit of Android creator Andy Rubin from 2014 is also referenced, with that episode coming alongside an alleged sexual misconduct claim, according to previous reports.
Machine learning scientist Dr. Jack Poulson quit Google in late summer after learning of the existence of Project Dragonfly from media reports. Prior to an early August report from The Intercept, the knowledge of the initiative was held by only several hundred employees from the company's 80,000-strong workforce. The industry veteran wrote to Senators over the matter shortly following his exit, asking them to put pressure on the company so as to force it to drop the concerning project. The timing of the revelation of the effort's existence was highly inopportune for Google as it came on the heels of the firm's decision to drop Project Maven. In turn, it ended up facing government criticism over its unwillingness to work with the Department of Homeland Security on defense initiatives while simultaneously collaborating with China on an Internet search engine that would allow Beijing to continue censoring all content accessed by its constituents and purge it from terms such as "human rights."
Google already exited China in 2010, arguing that it won't cave to oppressive demands of its regime and compromise local Search users to aide a government seeking to marginalize and discriminate against political opponents. What changed is that the company broke all performance records in the meantime and is currently facing a realistic possibility of stagnation; with an annual revenue of over $110 billion that's likely to be surpassed this year, Google is running out of potential markets which could support a new major expansion of its flagship digital services. China is essentially its only remaining option as it has over 800 million users, most of whom aren't utilizing the few Google-made solutions that are available in the country, including mobile augmented-reality platform ARCore and file management app Files by Google (previously known as Files Go), both of which are available exclusively for Android devices.
Google's management was highly evasive of questions concerning Project Dragonfly ever since the existence of the effort came to light, with all of its executives who were directly asked about the initiative refusing to rule out a return to China but simply stressing that no plan has been set in stone so far. While the pressure for the project to be canceled continues to increase, the firm's leadership is still silent on the matter, having even gone through a congressional hearing on user privacy in late September — where it was represented by Chief Privacy Officer Keith Enright — without providing a single clear answer regarding the controversial move.
Impact: A new wave of employee activism doesn't spell good news for Google regardless of the outcome of the newly published letter. The timing of its publication is also less than ideal given how the company is already facing significant criticism from both sides of the political aisle in its home country regarding privacy issues, China ambitions, and alleged political bias. At the same time, it's clashing with foreign regulators in the European Union over antitrust issues and currently isn't in a position to angle for a lot of political goodwill that would help it shield itself from such criticism, either at home or abroad.