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Google Search App for China Stirs Up Employee Anger Over Chinese Censorship

tshein / Flickr Creative Commons.

News broke Wednesday that Google is building a new search engine for China, sparking internal debate among employees over the ethics of selling a product to a country that censors its internet. This project has pitted Google employees concerned about privacy and free speech against executives eager to expand into a lucrative market.

The Intercept reports that the proposed search engine, code-named Dragonfly, will “blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest.”

Based on internal Google documents, The Intercept writes that Dragonfly “has been underway since spring of last year and accelerated following a December 2017 meeting between Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai and a top Chinese government official, according to internal Google documents and people familiar with the plans.”

Most Google employees had no idea the project existed. The Intercept found:

Teams of programmers and engineers at Google have created a custom Android app, different versions of which have been named “Maotai” and “Longfei.” The app has already been demonstrated to the Chinese government; the finalized version could be launched in the next six to nine months, pending approval from Chinese officials.

It’s an abrupt change for Google, which was once extremely wary of China’s censorship laws. Now, The Intercept reports, “the app Google is building in China will comply with the country’s strict censorship laws, restricting access to content that Xi Jinping’s Communist Party regime deems unfavorable.”

Bloomberg adds that eight years ago, “Google co-founder Sergey Brin, whose parents brought him to the U.S. to escape communist Russia, led a dramatic exit from mainland China in 2010 after the company refused to self-censor search content.”

Bloomberg reports that Dragonfly is one of a few projects the tech giant is exploring for a potential return to China, and that CEO Pinchai, “since coming on board in 2015, “has made no secret of his desire to take the search giant back to mainland China.” Brin, Bloomberg continues, has stepped back from his day-to-day duties at Alphabet Inc., which is producing Dragonfly, leaving Pinchai with greater control.

Bloomberg observes that by contrast, Pinchai “sees China as a hotbed of engineering talent and an appealing market.”

Pinchai’s eagerness to work with China has created internal strife. One employee, who spoke to Bloomberg anonymously, called Dragonfly a “censorship engine,” saying, “People trust Google to share true information and the Chinese search app is a betrayal of that.”

Some employees took to Twitter to announce their anger. In a since-deleted tweet reported by Bloomberg, researcher Meredith Whittaker was succinct: “WTF.” She added that the company’s decision was “enabling mass politically-directed censorship of (AI-enabled) search.”

Employee response to Dragonfly, however, was not all negative. Some workers expressed cautious optimism, and even excitement, Bloomberg reports:

Some Googlers, however, posted missives of support for the project on internal message boards on Wednesday. Google’s mission of organizing the world’s information shouldn’t leave out a fifth of the planet, one person wrote in a post viewed by Bloomberg News. Another said that boycotting the country did little to change the Chinese government or “bring any positive change.”

The Dragonfly debate comes on the heels of another recent controversy when Google won a contract to develop artificial intelligence technology for the Pentagon’s Project Maven, which, as The New York Times explains, “uses artificial intelligence to interpret video images and could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes.”

The Times said, “Many of the company’s top A.I. researchers, in particular, worried that the Maven contract was the first step toward using the nascent technology in advanced weapons.” Upset that at the decision, 4,000 Google employees signed a petition “demanding ‘a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.’ ”

The Times also reports that “[a] handful of employees also resigned in protest, while some were openly advocating the company to cancel the Maven contract.”

In Dragonfly’s case, its success or failure may depend not on Google employee backlash to China’s censorship laws but on Chinese consumers’ own search engine preferences.

As Bloomberg observes, while Google has stayed out of search in China, Chinese and other American companies have filled the gap. For example, “Baidu Inc. has strengthened its grip while Microsoft Corp.’s Bing operates in the country by censoring subjects and words.” Mark Natkin, managing director of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting, told Bloomberg that Google “faces an uphill battle in getting users who are now very accustomed to Baidu to switch.”

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