Google Employees Unhappy About Censorship in China

People walk through the entrance to one of Google's buildings.

writer icon Paige Whitehead     Google   |   Tech Ethics     🕐 04. Sep. 2018

1 400 Google employees have written a letter to the company detailing their ethical concerns with Google’s choices.

Despite earlier promises against censorship, it appears Google may be working on a censored search engine for China. Project Dragonfly, as is it known internally, has been kept a secret from employees, causing many of them to be upset at the prospect of their work contributing to government censorship in China.

Project Dragonfly
After Google suffered a cyber-attack in 2010, it announced that it would no longer censor its searches in China. Google believed that the attack originated from the Chinese government, and was focused on gathering information on Chinese human rights activists, by accessing their Gmail accounts.

At the time, Chief Legal Officer of Google, David Drummond, stated on their official blog, “We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.”

Back then, Google appeared to be willing to lose business in China in order to maintain their values and ethics and to uphold freedom of speech. It seems, however, that the decision may not have been long-lasting.

History Repeating
This is not the first time that Google employees have taken to a public forum to express their unease at Google’s ethics. In April of 2018, Google employees signed a petition and released an open letter to the public expressing concern over Google’s involvement in the military’s Project Maven.

Project Maven was a collaboration with the United States military and private companies. The companies were to analyse drone footage to develop better mapping software. Cars, people, and buildings could be better distinguished.

Despite Project Maven being categorised as “non-offensive” by a Google spokesperson, employees believed that Google should not be involved in the business of war. Google agreed, choosing not to renew its contract on Project Maven and issuing a new set of policies regarding military projects.

After yet more backlash concerning their new AI technology in May 2018, Google released their own set of principles concerning their involvement with the tech.

The Advantage for Google
China is a major superpower both politically and economically. Providing a service to such a powerful and populated country would more than likely be good for business. 

Google is a supporter of equality, but does this exclude China? Some Chinese human rights activists see Project Dragonfly as a step back for the company they once applauded. Creating a censored search engine limits the abilities of free speech and grants the government more power over surveillance.

In 2018, Google reduced the prevalence of their famous “don't be evil” motto from the code of conduct.

The motto, once used throughout the code of conduct, now appears at the end only, with, “And remember… don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right – speak up!” Google employees have stood by this code and spoken up twice. Google has listened to them once. Will they listen to them again?

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