1,000 Google employees reportedly protest work on censored Chinese search engine

Remember Google's Project Maven? Employees reportedly have a new ethical axe to grind.

Sean Hollister Senior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
Sean Hollister
3 min read
4th World Internet Conference - Wuzhen Summit

Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during the 4th World Internet Conference on December 3, 2017 in Wuzhen, China. 

China News Service/Getty Images

When Google employees learned the company was working on a secret drone project for the US government that could weaponize their AI research, thousands protested the so-called Project Maven -- and some employees reportedly quit.

Now, The New York Times reports that 1,000 employees are protesting another secret project -- one that would produce a new search engine that would allow the Chinese government to censor search results for its citizens.

While the NYT report doesn't confirm that Google is actually working on such a censored search engine -- there's some debate that the project, reportedly codenamed Dragonfly, actually exists -- an employee protest might at least push Google to issue some sort of statement that confirms or denies the project and explains the company's intentions. 

That's what happened with Project Maven, anyhow. Google CEO Sundar Pichai wound up publishing an entire AI ethics memo (you can read it here) that clearly stated the company wouldn't develop AI for use in weapons. (Notably, Google didn't actually halt Project Maven, deciding to honor the remaining months in its contract.)

According to the NYT, the current protest is in the form of a letter to Google signed by 1,000 employees, asking for the company to be transparent about the project and create an ethical review process for the project. Gizmodo appears to have obtained that letter, which we've copied below:

Our industry has entered a new era of ethical responsibility: the choices we make matter on a global scale. Yet most of us only learned about project Dragonfly through news reports [in] early August. Dragonfly is reported to be an effort to provide Search and personalized mobile news to China, in compliance with Chinese government censorship and surveillance requirements. Eight years ago, as Google pulled censored web search out of China, Sergey Brin explained the decision, saying: "in some aspects of [government] policy, particularly with respect to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see some earmarks of totalitarianism." Dragonfly and Google's return to China raise urgent moral and ethical issues, the substance of which we are discussing elsewhere.

Here, we address an underlying structural problems: currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment. That the decision to build Dragonfly was made in secret, and progressed even with the AI Principles in place makes clear that the Principles alone are not enough. We urgently need more transparency, a seat at the table, and a commitment to clear and open processes: Google employees need to know what we're building.

In the face of these significant issues, we, the undersigned, are calling for a Code Yellow addressing Ethics and Transparency, asking leadership to work with employees to implement concrete transparency and oversight processes, including the following:

1. An ethics review structure that includes rank and file employee representatives;

2. The appointment of ombudspeople, with meaningful input into their selection;

3. A clear plan for transparency sufficient to enable Googlers an individual ethical choice about what they work on; and

4. The publication of "ethical test cases"; an ethical assessment of Dragonfly, Maven, and Airgap GCP with respect to the AI Principle; and regular, official, internally visible communications and assessments regarding any new areas of substantial ethical concern.

Google left China eight years ago after similar concerns about censorship, but it appears the company is slowly pushing back into the Chinese market.

Meanwhile, tensions between the US and China are heating up -- tariffs, hacks and national security concerns -- so it's an interesting time for this debate to occur.

Google declined to comment.

Watch this: Google questioned over Chinese search engine rumours, Amazon removes neo-Nazi listings