Google’s Project Dragonfly Doesn't Fly By Employees

Over 1,400 of Google’s 88,000 employees have recently revealed concerns over Project Dragonfly, the company’s secret plan to engineer a censored search platform in China. In a letter passed throughout Google’s internal communication systems, and later obtained by The Intercept and the New York Times, employees questioned the ethics behind Google’s move to abide by China’s notoriously strict censorship requirements. Project Dragonfly, if implemented, would block users from seeing searches blacklisted by the Great Firewall, including protests, human rights, and other potentially controversial topics. Google employees also criticized the tech giant’s lack of transparency with regards to the moral issues employees may face, protesting that, “Currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment.”   

Though Google has not issued any official statement about this controversy, its chief executive, Sundar Pichai, clarified to employees, through an internal software Q&A system, that the company is “not close to launching a search product in China.” However, that Google would want to target China as the next developmental focus is no surprise. China holds the largest Internet user base in the world, which proves incredibly lucrative to Silicon Valley tech companies. Currently, the government has shown hostility to many foreign technologies, such as Facebook, Youtube, and Uber, that could potentially show online content that government officials do not want its citizens to see. Still, when it comes to China, companies are willing to bend the rules - according to Vox, LinkedIn opened in China after allowing the government to block certain online information, and Facebook, in 2016, was revealed to have pitched a similar censorship tool which enabled third parties to regulate Facebook content, much to employee backlash.

As such, Google’s willingness to accede to China’s censorship demands is not particularly surprising. However, this recent move is a shocking reversal from the company’s unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil,” and its formerly idealistic tendencies. In 2010, Google had pulled its search engine out of China after hackers attempted to infiltrate the private email accounts of several prominent civil rights activists. As a company, Google had also been famously open towards employee concerns and workspace transparency, as well as publicly declaring a commitment to the social good.

Gearing for re-entry into China, according to Kate Conger of the New York Times, could be a “a sign of a more mature and pragmatic company.” But while Google’s shift towards pragmatism could financially elevate the company, it also sends a message about its growing detachment from ethical responsibility.