Google’s Plan to Help Censor China
Everything We Know About Google’s Project Dragonfly
Google is reportedly planning to launch two apps in China – their traditional search app and a news aggregator – as part of a secret censorship project internally dubbed ‘Project Dragonfly.’
Google’s representatives have neither confirmed nor denied this project’s existence, intent, or timeline. However, anonymous employees who leaked the project’s details have stirred quite the controversy. They insist that this project not only exists in beta, but that demonstrations have already been given to regulatory Chinese officials.
A return to China as a search engine and publishing aggregate would force Google to contend with evermore stringent Chinese censorship and cyber security laws. Ironically, these policies are even more strict and heavily enforced than those which motivated Google to pull out of China eight years ago.
To comply with this stringency, Google has developed a censorship-friendly version of its search engine. The entity will filter results as well as ban the websites prohibited by the Great Firewall. The most ‘sensitive’ queries will not return any results at all.
The History of Google in China
Following the governmental shutdown of an uncensored Google in China in the early aughts, Google launched and operated a censored and compliant search engine in China beginning in 2006. In 2010, however, Google removed its desktop search app. The Internet mogul withdrew its presence in China after a combination of hacking interference. There was also widespread displeasure with China’s regulations and censorship. A memo released in 2010 announced Google’s withdrawal from the Chinese market citing cyber attacks, surveillance, and the limitations on free speech. China’s market for internet usership, however, has grown extensively since 2010. Now, over 750 million people in China are active online. 80% of users are employ devices that operate with (Google’s) Android OS.
Currently, Google has hundreds of employees in China. They operate some apps – a translation app and a file-sharing service – in China. Google has also recently invested hundreds of millions of dollars in an online Chinese retailer and operates an AI research laboratory in Beijing. Subject to recent concern, Google also has a technology-sharing agreement with Chinese company Tencent. This partnership has garnered speculation that Google could be providing data and tech access to Chinese tech companies. This would allow these companies to steal Google’s proprietary application technology outright. They could otherwise borrow these app frameworks openly and repackage them, leaving Google’s reputation clean, and involvement unsuspected.
Criticism for Project Dragonfly’s Censorship
While big tech giants in the US like LinkedIn, Apple, and IBM all have varying degrees of involvement in the Chinese market, widespread criticism and concern have met Google’s decision to turn back to the Chinese market. While the so-called Great Firewall and its related censorship would already weigh heavily on Google’s ability to provide objective search results or news to the people of China, there’s more. Critics worry over Chinese governmental infiltration of sensitive data. Google’s willingness to comply with an authoritarian government to do business is also alarming. These combined factors could be a major victory for heavy-handed rulers globally. It would also be a major loss for corporate ethics, consumer protection, and human rights.
A Breach in Ethics, Human Rights, and Privacy
Further, Google’s advertising platform is designed to ethically collect usership data. The data is then used to ensure that advertisers can target users with relevant ads. This information, if collected in China, would be much more easily accessed by the Chinese government and related authorities. This data could then be used to police internet activity and speech, prosecute citizens or shut down websites and news syndicates. China has shut down more than 3,000 websites in 2018 alone.
China’s policies also mandate that any cloud-based product, service, or application must be run by cloud-based companies in China. For example, as of February, a state-run Chinese company operates Apple’s iCloud service in China. This change in leadership renders any and all captured data to be the property of the Chinese government to do with as they see fit. There is speculation that data captured or stored within Google’s cloud technology would be similarly accessible for governmental bodies. Many critics see this authority as a privacy violation and an infringement on human rights.
Critical parties have also expressed that Google’s decision to bend to Chinese law and enter this market directly defies Google’s own policies, values, and a mission statement which includes their goal to “make the world’s information universally accessible.”
US Government Response to Project Dragonfly
US officials are concerned and confused about Google’s potential choice to move into the Chinese market. Six bipartisan US senators from several states have penned a plea to three-year Google CEO Sundar Pichai expressing concern for this project. They question why this project has been enacted. They also inquire what changed for Google to return to China after a very purposed withdrawal in 2010.
The senators especially want to know how the company plans to handle heavy governmental regulation, involvement, and control. Finally, this letter asserts that by complying with Chinese censorship law, Google will be complicit in violations of human rights. At time of publication, there has been no response to this letter from Pichai and his team. No official comments about Project Dragonfly have been made except to say that no comment will be provided.
Representatives from Amnesty International and the Human Rights in China organization have expressed complete opposition to this project, postulating that Google will no longer hold its position as a locus of corporate integrity by making this move. After all, Google could lose more than just employees by entering into compliance with an authoritarian state.
Google Employees’ Response to Project Dragonfly
Following the leak on Dragonfly, as reported by The Intercept, some of Google’s employees have been in an uproar. Internal reactions to Project Dragonfly include pleas to shut down the endeavor – not unlike those that closed military-facing Project Maven. Some employees have chosen to opt out of further involvement in Project Dragonfly. Others have even quit, citing the rupture in Google’s ethics.
Anonymous employees have also reported that Google’s higher-ups have quickly put Project Dragonfly on hush since the leak.
Employee access to relevant documentation has been revoked. According to these internal reports, team leaders in the company are radio silent on the controversy. Meanwhile, internal chat conversations and forums are full of fear, anger, and confusion.
There is also speculation – and panic – that Google could be forced to comply with Chinese human resources regulations. Most fearfully, these regulations includes those centered toward publishing houses in China that require companies’ employees to attend trainings backing Marxist Values.
But, what does China think?
The internet-using public in China appears torn. Some appear skeptical that within China’s regulatory environment, Google will just be a clone of Chinese search giant Baidu. Such companies seem excited at the possibility of Google’s return. Baidu CEO Robin Li has asserted that if Google should be invited to re-enter the Chinese market, Baidu will defeat Google. Those Chinese consumers who are chomping at the bit for Google to return have refuted this claim. Results from a Weibo poll indicate that 85.7% of users would choose Google alone over Baidu, or both as an option.
As for the Chinese government’s interest in Google’s proposition? The verdict is out. There has been no official statement from representatives of the Chinese government regarding their intent to welcome Google back into China or reject the proposal. However, if approval does come swiftly, insiders say that a finalized version of Google’s “Maotai” and “Longfei” apps could be launched in nine months or less.
This is a developing story.