Google staff write open letter to protest Google Dragonfly

Sixty Google staff have signed an open letter condemning Google’s “Project Dragonfly”, a censored version of its search engine to be made available in China.

The letter criticises “technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be,” and the fact that “Dragonfly would also enable censorship and government-directed disinformation”. The letter also references the fact China’s Social Credit Score system, which would rate citizens based on factors including their loyalty, is already being used to control the population, to an extent.

The search engine in question would block search terms like “human rights” and “religion”, creating a culture of censorship which Google staff are ill at ease with. Signatories of the letter include software engineers, program managers and UX designers.

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The signatories reference Amnesty International’s pleas for Google to drop Dragonfly, and echoes this sentiment in its conclusion.

A previous letter by Google staff opposed to Dragonfly, published by the New York Times, demands more transparency from Google, maintaining that “[c]urrently we do not have the information required to make ethically informed decisions about our work”. Employees also contend that the endeavour would violate Google’s code of conduct, which famously includes a “don’t be evil” clause. Since that letter, more information has come out about Dragonfly.

“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,” the letter demanded.

For its part, Google has remained silent. Indeed, the firm has never spoken publicly about the project, and for the time being, is declining to comment. If the censored search engine were to come to fruition, it would mark a u-turn for Google, which severed ties with China eight years ago in opposition to the country’s stringent censorship laws.

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This isn’t the first time Google’s been in hot water with its employees; back in April, thousands of staff rallied against a programme which developed AI for US military drones. In that instance, the protest proved fruitful, with Google deciding to terminate its AI contract with the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, a recent discovery that Google will track its users even when they’ve turned Location History off has caused a furore, after one user found she was being asked to rate shops she’d visited despite having ostensibly turned location tracking off.

As with the New York Times letter, Google has not commented on this newer letter. It stands by the line that its pursuit of Dragonfly is “exploratory”, which likely means they’re not yet convinced by its viability. Hopefully the two letters will give them cause for more doubt.

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