Renewed fears of Chinese censorship at Google

7th March 2019

Employees at the tech company discover ongoing work on Project Dragonfly

A group of Google employees have been investigating claims made by company executives that development of a new censored search engine for the Chinese market, known as Project Dragonfly, has been halted. Employees say they are concerned that, despite the public outcry, work on the project is still ongoing, The Intercept has reported.

Dragonfly was to be a new search engine that would comply with Beijing’s notoriously repressive censorship regime. It would restrict or completely block searches for phrases like “human rights”, “democracy”, “Dalai Lama” and “Tibet”. Dragonfly would also comply with China's increasingly tight regime of internet surveillance, which requires companies to store the personal information of users and make it accessible to the country's security agencies.

Human rights groups, including Free Tibet, criticised Google’s plans and Google’s own employees pushed back against the project, which violates the company’s longstanding motto; “Don’t Be Evil”. After this backlash, bosses announced they would be moving engineers off Project Dragonfly and no longer had plans to launch it, but a group of Google employees were not satisfied and continued to investigate.

Recently, they discovered ongoing changes to a segment of code which is associated with the project, three Google sources told The Intercept – which suggests that someone in the company is still working on it. The employees told the online news outlet that about 500 changes had been made to the code last December, with a further 400 changes between January and February this year. This runs counter to the claims that the project had been shelved.

It is possible that changes to the code could simply be a result of engineers wrapping up final pieces of work on the project before they abandon it, employees said. One source familiar with Dragonfly told The Intercept:

“I still believe the project is dead, but we’re still waiting for a declaration from Google that censorship is unacceptable and that they will not collaborate with governments in the oppression of their people,” 

Several employees have resigned in recent months, in part due to Dragonfly and other ethical concerns. At least six staff, including two in senior positions, have quit the company since December, The Intercept reported.

One of these was software engineer Colin McMillen, who had worked at Google for nine years. He quit the company in early February citing concerns over Dragonfly and other “ethically dubious” decisions.

Before leaving, McMillen said he and his colleagues had “strong indications that something is still happening” with Google search in China, but said it was not clear exactly what was being planned.

“I just don’t know where the leadership is coming from anymore,” he told The Intercept. “They have really closed down communication and become significantly less transparent.”

He seemed less optimistic than other sources, saying:

Right now it [Dragonfly] feels unlaunchable, but I don’t think they are canceling outright. I think they are putting it on the back burner and are going to try it again in a year or two with a different code name or approach.

The search engine, if rolled out, would make Google complicit in censoring ongoing human rights abuses in Tibet and China, and restricting internet freedom.

Google did not respond to a request for comment from The Intercept.

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Internet giant Google has been working on a search engine for the Chinese market: Project Dragonfly. Dragonfly would censor information on human rights abuses in Tibet and give the Chinese security services access to the data of people making searches. These dangerous plans have been opposed by Tibetans, Uyghurs, Chinese dissidents, human rights defenders and Google's own employees. Get involved - tell Google's executives to stop Project Dragonfly.