Google Suppressed Employee Voices Over Controversial China Project: Report

Google suppressed employee voices raised in reaction to Project Dragonfly, a controversial initiative aimed at the creation of a censored version of Search for China, The Intercept reports, citing several past and current engineers involved in the effort. Those sources include Yonatan Zunger, one of Google's top engineers who spend 15 years with the company and departed last year, not long after being asked to work on Project Dragonfly. The green light for the initiative was given some two years back and discussions with engineers approached to work on the secretive effort began in early 2017. It was in February of that year that Google China chief Scott Beaumont briefed some of the potential candidates for the project on its existence during a meeting in the technology juggernaut's headquarters in Mountain View, California, and it was that gathering that led to some of the first known warnings about the concept being raised by employees.

Mr. Zunger said he voiced a number of concerns regarding Dragonfly, including the fact that launching an Internet search engine which relies on infrastructure in China would allow the communist government to easily access information on what its citizens are inquiring about on the World Wide Web, then leverage that data to further its oppressive agenda, as it often did in the past when it moved against human rights activists, journalists, and dissidents. The leadership who pushed for Dragonfly — including Mr. Beaumont — is said to have acknowledged those concerns superficially but deemed them not important enough to warrant canceling the project or even significantly altering its course.

The management that was pushing for Dragonfly might not have been concerned the contents of employee opposition but feared its very existence will slow down progress, which is why it decided to share information about the effort on a need-to-know basis, sources claim. Some employees were even threatened that discussing Dragonfly with their colleagues who were unaware of the effort could result in termination. The early prototype of the censored service which is still being worked on was created in the form of a mobile app for Android and iOS devices. The tool blacklists thousands of banned terms in China such as "human rights" and "Nobel prize," as well as names of countless dissidents of the Communist Party. The app links those searches to phone numbers and also tracks user location, with all of that info being easily accessible by the Chinese government so long as its data is stored domestically, which is what Google planned to do.

Whereas all of Google's product concepts are traditionally reviewed by the company's legal, security, and privacy units, the management circumvented those norms when it came to Dragonfly; Mr. Beaumont is said to have had openly adversarial relations with the teams that should have been in charge of voicing concerns about the project and directly opposed their attempts to probe the app for privacy and security concerns. "I don’t know if I want you asking those questions," he retorted during one meeting wherein the security and privacy teams said they wanted to ensure the service would be safe against hackers — state-sponsored and otherwise — and provide Chinese users with control of their own data. Insiders claim that the company's leadership even actively worked on minimizing Dragonfly's paper trail, all in an effort to suppress leaks, which was unconventional even for the most highly classified projects at Google. Mr. Zunger ended up joining Humu, a startup co-founded by former Google veterans, in mid-2017 but says he likely would have resigned in protest of Dragonfly had he not received that job offer at the time.

Background: The Alphabet-owned firm managed to keep the existence of Dragonfly a secret for 18 months before an early August report made it public knowledge. Up until that point, only several hundred employees from Google's 88,000-strong workforce were aware of the initiative. Several high-profile engineers left the company after learning of Dragonfly, citing strong ethical concerns. Earlier this week, a group of over 130 employees went public with their calls for the project to be shuttered, criticizing it for "dangerous" and unethical motivations that signal the tech giant's management is now prioritizing profits over ethics while claiming that wasn't always the case.

That notion appears to have a strong basis in reality seeing how Google's management decided to exit China's Internet search market in 2010, citing unwillingness to work with an oppressive regime that wanted to leverage all local industry actors for the purpose of turning them into spying tools that would allow it to continue tightening its grip on public discourse and dissidents. Eight years later, Beijing's policies haven't changed and only became more effective as the technology evolved but Google's leadership doesn't appear to be as concerned with championing Western values in its business dealings as it once was.

The reasons for that are multifold but largely come down to the fact that Google's core business appears to be close to its peak and has limited room for growth - limited outside of China, that is. In the Far Eastern country, the company still has a pool of some 800 million Internet users, most of whom are its potential future customers. Faced with a slow-down of its core business growth in the West and the fact that some of its largest diversification efforts such as its move to consumer electronics are yet to pan out, Google now appears to be more than willing to forget about its past differences with Beijing and play by its rules in exchange to being given an opportunity to compete in the most populous country on the planet.

Impact: While Google has been facing significant criticism from all sides of the political aisle in its home country due to Dragonfly, work on the project continues. Recent reports suggest the service will debut within the first four months of 2019, despite CEO Sundar Pichai's insistence that no launch timeframe has been attached to the project he continues to describe as an experiment. While the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to grill Mr. Pichai on the matter and other issues such as liberal bias allegations on Wednesday, December 4, the current state of affairs appears to suggest Google won't be changing course in its pursuit of growth.

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Dominik Bosnjak

Head Editor
Dominik started at AndroidHeadlines in 2016 and is the Head Editor of the site today. He’s approaching his first full decade in the media industry, with his background being primarily in technology, gaming, and entertainment. These days, his focus is more on the political side of the tech game, as well as data privacy issues, with him looking at both of those through the prism of Android. Contact him at [email protected]
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