Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were among more than 50 human rights organizations and individuals that recently called out Google CEO Sundar Pichai in an open letter over the company's widely-reported China-specific search engine project 'Project Dragonfly', Bloomberg reports. The letter, including high-profile individuals such as Edward Snowden and journalist-centric organizations like the Hong Kong Journalists Association, is specifically addressed Mr. Pichai and three other executives with the company. Those include VP of Search Ben Gomes, SVP of Global Affairs Kent Walker, and VP Greater China & Korea Scott Beaumont. It laments that the company's leadership has left behind Google's "2010 commitment" against censored searches in the region and asks that they work to return to those standards, abandoning Project Dragonfly. Failing to do so would, the letter states, implicate Google as a complicit actor in the Chinese government's oppression -- assisting the authorities in the arrest or imprisonment of people for expressing their opinions online.
Background: The new letter is just the latest in a string of indirect exchanges between the groups and the search giant. Rather than responding directly to the organizations, the company has been openly responding to some of the concerns brought forward in media reports about the project. Those responses have not met the satisfaction of the signing groups though and appear to have made matters worse, serving only to 'heighten' concerns the company might move forward with Project Dragonfly and enable abuses. Amid those reports are implications that the search engine and the associated application would be overseen at the behest of the Chinese government. That would include wide-ranging censorship with search terms such as “human rights”, “student protest,” or “Nobel Prize" blacklisted. While the company has repeatedly claimed the project is not near finalization and not set in stone, subsequent reports have suggested the response may just be a facade. Among the more serious accusations leveled against the company, and a chief concern to the recent letter's signers, are claims that it is actively stifling dissenting voices against the project.
As a result of the outflow of reports, Google has been under increasing scrutiny over the past several months, not only for its reported work on Project Dragonfly. In addition to challenges to its search tool, the search giant is also facing accusations of political bias in its search results and other products, culminating in its CEO facing a House Judiciary Committee's hearing this week. That covered a barrage of topics including the reports about Google's intention to launch a censored search in China, as well as questions about whether or not search results in the US are deliberately biased against conservatives.
Impact: During this week's hearing, Mr. Pichai has flatly denied that Google has any plans to launch its search tools in China with any kind of coherence to the country's censorship rules or that its algorithms are biased. It also explained how those algorithms work to some extent and vowed to work with the US government with regard to its search products, in a bid to keep US consumers safe. The history surrounding Project Dragonfly and reports that the search giant has gone to lengths to continue keeping the project under wraps, those statements aren't likely to assuage the concerns of human rights groups.