Project Dragonfly is making Google’s employees question the moral values of the company

By Sofia Gallarate

Updated May 16, 2020 at 10:54 AM

Reading time: 2 minutes

“Anybody who does business in China compromises some of their core values. Every single company, because the laws in China are quite a bit different than they are in our own country”, said John Hennessy, the chair of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., when asked about Project Dragonfly, a formerly secret Google plan for a censored Chinese search engine and the dubious morals behind it.

Project Dragonfly (as it was internally named at Google) is a customised version of Google’s iconic search engine, where the freedom of internet browsing is curtailed by heavy censorship on the search results. The project was designed to conform to the rules of the Chinese Communist Party, which means that Google has to censor ‘sensitive’ information such as “Tiananmen Square”, “Nobel Prize” and “human rights”. Any public information must adhere to China’s surveillance laws or be screened by authorities first. For example, information on air pollution needs to be approved by Beijing before appearing on the search engine. The protocol does not exactly comply with what, in the Western hemisphere, is considered freedom of speech or basic privacy settings, which is why it doesn’t come as a surprise that Google’s employees are now asking for the launch of the project to be reconsidered.

It’s not the first time Google has attempted to introduce its search engine to China. Back in 2010, a similarly controversial programme was dropped when founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page decided that censoring the search engine to the standards of the Chinese government was not in line with the company ethos. Eight years later, Google is trying to enter China’s restricted network once again. According to reporter Mark Bergen, the reason behind this new venture, beyond Google’s innate expansion to China, was to tighten the collaboration between the company focus on Artificial Intelligence and China’s “talent pool in the field”.

But like in 2010, following months of internal calls for clarification on the project’s human rights concerns and several leaks of the protocol, a number of employees are now threatening to strike as they make their opposition. The lack of coherent answers coming from Project Dragonfly’s main executives has also triggered former Google research scientist Jack Poulson’s resignation, as he thoroughly explains in an article published on The Intercept. According to some of the protesters, the project managers, among which is Scott Beaumont, Google head of operations in China, initially intended to disclose Project Dragonfly only once it was already launched in China.

But with an increasing number of internal pressures, things didn’t go as smoothly as the project’s executives imagined. As a response to the questioning, a Google spokesperson published a statement addressing the plan, arguing that Project Dragonfly was only at a test phase. In a bid to demonstrate that the company has taken into consideration the moral working of the engine, the spokesperson said that “This is an exploratory project and no decision has been made about whether we could or would launch.” Yet, as Poulson himself wrote, “Google CEO Sundar Pichai attempted to invoke an engineering defence by arguing that Google would not need to censor “well over 99 percent” of queries. Such a framing is perhaps the most extreme example of a broad pattern of redirecting conversations away from their concrete governmental concessions—which, again, literally involved blacklisting the phrase “human rights,” risking health by censoring air quality data, and allowing for easy surveillance by tying queries to phone numbers.”

The negotiation on a censored search engine in China is over a decade old. At the same time, doubts regarding whether it would be better for Google to provide Chinese citizens with their renowned engine, albeit censored, or to keep the ethos of the company coherent have prevailed alongside the negotiations. It would be interesting to know if Google’s CEO and the project leaders ever foresaw the possibility of an opposition coming from their own workers, or if they were ever aware that a reasonable amount of Google’s well-nurtured employees would come forward in denouncing one of the company’s most critical projects for its questionable values. At this point, one thing is certain: Google is currently being scrutinised by its own employees, an agency that holds an empowering force and that reveals a glimpse of resistance within one of the world’s most powerful and otherwise untouchable corporations.

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