Employee backlash at Google over its clandestine ‘Dragonfly’ search engine project in China is snowballing into near- unmanageable proportions for the tech giant.
Ever since it’s secret and highly questionable Dragonfly project in China was exposed in August, the search engine titan has faced fierce criticism from investigative journalists and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, in addition to mounting dissent among its own workforce.
An open letter demanding the immediate scrapping of the controversial tailored version of Google’s popular search engine for China was published online this week.
What started off as a 10-signatory letter entitled “We are Google employees. Google must drop Dragonfly,” is now backed by as many as 649 employee signatures, and counting, as murkier details continue to emerge.
The letter starts with a categorical demand on the company to halt Dragonfly, calling the project “Google’s effort to create a censored search engine for the Chinese market that enables state surveillance.”
“We are among thousands of employees who have raised our voices for months,” reads the letter.
“International human rights organizations and investigative reporters have also sounded the alarm, emphasizing serious human rights concerns and repeatedly calling on Google to cancel the project,” it continues. “So far, our leadership’s response has been unsatisfactory.”
By developing Dragonfly Google is effectively aiding China in snooping on its innocent population.
It’s no hidden secret that China, of late, has been expanding its surveillance capabilities with the help of new technologies and tools, using them together with online activity reports and personal data of its own citizens to police them, particularly targeting the Uyghurs, women’s rights activists and students, among others.
“Providing the Chinese government with ready access to user data, as required by Chinese law, would make Google complicit in oppression and human rights abuses,” says the letter.
Moreover, a project like Dragonfly would only facilitate censorship and state-sponsored disinformation campaigns and “destabilize the ground truth on which popular deliberation and dissent rely,” the letter notes.
Given China’s propensity to crush nonconformists and muffle dissenting voices, Dragonfly would, in all probability, be used to silence the “marginalized” and promote state-friendly information, further suggests the letter.
“Many of us accepted employment at Google with the company’s values in mind, including its previous position on Chinese censorship and surveillance, and an understanding that Google was a company willing to place its values above its profits,” the letter says.
“After a year of disappointments including Project Maven, Dragonfly, and Google’s support for abusers, we no longer believe this is the case. This is why we’re taking a stand.”
In a Nov 29 piece for ‘The Intercept,’ Ryan Gallagher wrote that Google’s head of operations in China, Scott Beaumont, chose to ignore the privacy concerns raised in a meeting by a certain Yonatan Zunger, a Google veteran of fourteen years who has left the company since.
So single-minded was the Google management in keeping Dragonfly under wraps that it allegedly threatened project workers with termination if they spoke about the secret goings-on outside of the group working on it.
Beaumont is even thought to have misled project workers by giving them the impression that Dragonfly had the backing of Google co-founder Sergey Brin – a man known for his stand against Chinese censorship and interference ever since he pulled Google out of China in 2010 for those exact same reasons.
The former CEO became aware of the blatant misrepresentation only after Dragonfly was exposed in August.
“This is an exploratory project and no decision has been made about whether we could or would launch,” ‘The Register’ has quoted Google as saying.
“As we’ve explored the project, many privacy and security engineers have been consulted, as they always are,” Google told the UK website.
“For any product, final launch is contingent on a full, final privacy review but we’ve never gotten to that point in development. Privacy reviews at Google are non-negotiable and we never short circuit the process,” Google said in a vain attempt at defending its plummeting reputation.
In fact, questions are also being raised on the integrity of Google’s incumbent CEO Sundar Pichai, who has, allegedly, not been as honest as he should have been about Dragonfly.
Responding to a question during a November conference in San Francisco, Pichai said it was too early and “we don’t know whether we would or could do this in China but we felt like it was important for us to explore.”
However, project workers have reportedly refuted his claim saying they were under immense pressure to get Dragonfly ready for deployment by early 2019.
The noise against Google’s corroborate values and privacy ethics has reached such a crescendo that Liz Fong-Jones, an engineer in the company, is publicly pooling a strike fund in support of all those who stand against the Dragonfly project.
Fong-Jones has taken to Twitter to push for a strike should Google bypass the security and privacy team’s recommendations.
“I have immense confidence in the men, women, and non-binary people of the Google Security and Privacy teams. If they aren’t allowed to do their jobs, that is another signal that clearly indicates resigning on Feb 1 is the right move for me,” she wrote, adding, “There’s also that little FTC decree…”
She followed it up with:
“I firmly suggest that my current fellow colleagues think about what they’d do if the red line were crossed and an executive overrode a S&P launch bit, or members of the S&P team indicated that they were coerced into marking it green. Google’s S&P teams must have our backs.”
So far, workers have pledged $100,000 towards the fund – the cut-off amount she said she would match the moment it was raised.
“Okay, the full $100k has been raised,” she announced on Twitter.
“Watch this space for more details once I’ve spoken to legal counsel and more experienced labor organizers,” she wrote.
It seems the time has come for Google to get its priorities right because Dragonfly is not a one-off blemish on its reputation.
A recent scandal that ought to be fresh in everybody’s minds is the recent walk-out staged by more than 20,000 employees following a damaging NYT report on the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against Andy Rubin, the creator of Android mobile software.