Dozens of Google employees have signed on to an open letter demanding that Google stop work on Project Dragonfly, a censored version of Google’s search engine that could be deployed in mainland China.
The project’s existence was revealed by the Intercept back in August. Shortly afterward, Google CEO Sundar Pichai insisted that the company was “not close to launching a search product” in China, but it hasn’t ruled out doing so in the future.
If Google were to launch a censored search engine, it would represent a dramatic about-face for a company that shuttered its Chinese search engine over censorship concerns back in 2010.
“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,” the protesting employees wrote in a Tuesday Medium post.
“Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China,” the employees added. “We object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be.”
Early Internet evangelists hoped that the Internet would undermine oppressive governments by enabling the free flow of information. But China’s authoritarian regime has figured out how to use Internet technologies to strengthen their own power. The country has built sophisticated infrastructure for online surveillance and censorship.
Part of China’s strategy has been forcing online services operating in China to comply with Chinese censorship laws. For search engines, that means censoring search results on sensitive topics.
“The Chinese government is openly expanding its surveillance powers and tools of population control,” the protesting Googlers wrote on Tuesday.
For the last eight years, Google has refused to cooperate with these efforts. Until recently, Google minimized its physical footprint in the country to avoid giving the Chinese government the leverage that would come from having offices and employees on the Chinese mainland.
But China is a big market. And under the leadership of Sundar Pichai, Google seems to be softening its hardline stance. Google opened a research center in Beijing last December, and the company began offering a Chinese version of a file management app that was originally designed for the Indian market—it’s an app designed for customers with limited on-device storage.
“I care about servicing users globally in every corner. Google is for everyone,” Pichai said in 2016. “We want to be in China serving Chinese users.”
The big question is whether entering the Chinese market would force Google to check its values at the door.
“Google is too powerful not to be held accountable,” the dissident Google employees wrote. “We deserve to know what we’re building and we deserve a say in these significant decisions.”
The list of signers has been growing rapidly. The post initially had 12 names on it when it was posted early Tuesday morning, but as of this story’s publication, it’s up to 130 names. The authors say they’ll continue adding names as more people sign up.
Google has had an increasingly fractious relationship with its own workforce in recent months. Earlier this year, more than 3,000 Googlers signed a letter asking Pichai to halt work on a military drone project. A dozen employees quit Google in protest of the project, and Google ultimately decided not to renew its contract with the military.
Google has also faced protest over its handling of sexual misconduct. Earlier this month, thousands of employees walked out to protest reports that the company had made big payouts to departing executives who faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Those protests also had an impact, as Google eliminated the mandatory arbitration clause of its employee contract in sexual misconduct cases.
“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,” Google said in an emailed statement. “But our work on search has been exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China.”