Employees say Google must drop China search project Dragonfly

Members of the organization Amnesty International also protested at Google offices worldwide.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Marrian Zhou Staff Reporter
Marrian Zhou is a Beijing-born Californian living in New York City. She joined CNET as a staff reporter upon graduation from Columbia Journalism School. When Marrian is not reporting, she is probably binge watching, playing saxophone or eating hot pot.
Richard Nieva
Marrian Zhou
5 min read
The logo of google is seen in a smartphone

Amnesty International members protested in front of one of Google's San Francisco offices.

Angela Lang/CNET

Google employees are taking the next step in protesting Dragonfly, a controversial search project for the Chinese market that may help the country's government track searches. 

More than 200  Google employees, mostly software engineers, joined with the organization Amnesty International on Tuesday to publish a letter demanding CEO Sundar Pichai cancel the project. Google has said little about Dragonfly, but the project would reportedly bring a censored search engine to China and make it possible to connect users' search queries to their phone numbers, enabling the Chinese government to more easily track searches.

"Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: We object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be," the employees said in the letter. "Dragonfly in China would establish a dangerous precedent at a volatile political moment, one that would make it harder for Google to deny other countries similar concessions."

A Google spokesperson responded with a previous statement the company had made about the project: "We've been investing for many years to help Chinese users, from developing Android, through mobile apps such as Google Translate and Files Go, and our developer tools. But our work on search has been exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China."

'A brick in the Chinese firewall'

Amnesty International also protested in front of Google offices worldwide, including in San Francisco, Berlin, Toronto and London. 

"We're calling on Google employees to stand with us," Amy Gordon, an Amnesty International member who organized the San Francisco protest, said in front of one of Google's offices in the city. "We think that Google should be fighting for an internet where information is freely accessible to everyone."

Gordon, along with two other protesters from Amnesty International, held up dragonfly kites and signs that said "Do the right thing, Sundar Pichai." 

In Berlin, protesters held up signs that said, "Hey Google, don't be a brick in the Chinese Firewall."

Google has been roiled in recent months by reports about Project Dragonfly, eight years after initially retreating from the country. At that time, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union, cited the "totalitarianism" of Chinese policies.

The new protest isn't the first time Google's workforce has criticized the Dragonfly project. A handful of employees have reportedly quit over the initiative and roughly 1,000 employees signed an open letter asking the company to be transparent about the project. The letter asked for the creation of a review process that includes rank-and-file employees, not just high-level executives.

Google has done little to acknowledge Dragonfly. However, in September, Keith Enright, Google's chief privacy officer, confirmed during a hearing with the Senate Commerce Committee that the project exists, though he wouldn't elaborate.


One protester held up a sign calling out Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

Angela Lang/CNET

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in October that Google may never launch the search engine.

One Google employee who was approached by Amnesty International protesters in San Francisco, however, said she supports the Dragonfly project. "China needs Google," said Dan, who asked that her last name not be used. Dan, who said she's from China, said the dominant search engine in the country, Baidu, is not a suitable alternative. 

Still, she understands the concern with censorship. "The best option is an uncensored Google," she said. "But unless you can change the government, there are tradeoffs."

Another protest

The appetite for protest at Google has been particularly robust recently. Earlier this month, 20,000 Google workers and contractors walked out of the company's offices worldwide to protest the company's handling of sexual harassment claims against key executives. 

Employees have also pushed back against Google's decision to go after lucrative military contracts. Workers challenged the company's decision to take part in Project Maven, a Defense Department initiative aimed at developing better AI for the US military. More than 4,000 employees reportedly signed a petition addressed to Pichai demanding he cancel the project. In June, Google said it wouldn't renew the Maven contract or pursue similar contracts.

"Google is too powerful not to be held accountable," the staff said in the Tuesday letter. "We deserve to know what we're building and we deserve a say in these significant decisions."

The full letter is below:

We are Google Employees. Google must drop Dragonfly. 

We are Google employees and we join Amnesty International in calling on Google to cancel project Dragonfly, 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. 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. So far, our leadership's response has been unsatisfactory.

Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be. The Chinese government certainly isn't alone in its readiness to stifle freedom of expression, and to use surveillance to repress dissent. Dragonfly in China would establish a dangerous precedent at a volatile political moment, one that would make it harder for Google to deny other countries similar concessions.

Our company's decision comes as the Chinese government is openly expanding its surveillance powers and tools of population control. Many of these rely on advanced technologies, and combine online activity, personal records, and mass monitoring to track and profile citizens. Reports are already showing who bears the cost, including Uyghurswomen's rights advocates, and students. 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.

Dragonfly would also enable censorship and government-directed disinformation, and destabilize the ground truth on which popular deliberation and dissent rely. Given the Chinese government's reported suppression of dissident voices, such controls would likely be used to silence marginalized people, and favor information that promotes government interests.

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. 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.

We join with Amnesty International in demanding that Google cancel Dragonfly. We also demand that leadership commit to transparency, clear communication, and real accountability. Google is too powerful not to be held accountable. We deserve to know what we're building and we deserve a say in these significant decisions.

First published Nov. 27, 9:58 a.m. PT.
Update, 12:52 p.m. PT: Adds details from protest in front of one of Google's San Francisco offices.

The Honeymoon Is Over: Here's why tech is under Washington's microscope.

Cambridge Analytica: Everything you need to know about Facebook's data mining scandal.