The simmering tensions between the growing power of tech companies and their employees has continued on an expanded front: China. Google employees have penned a letter to their employer protesting Project Dragonfly, a censored search engine that would operate in China.
"Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China," reads the letter, . "We object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be."
Dragonfly caught the public's attention earlier this year through documents in August. Currently the country's internet is limited through what's colloquially known as the "Great Firewall of China," which blocks foreign websites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as access to many mainstream foreign news sources.
While there are ways to evade this censorship, such as VPNs and proxy servers, these methods are constantly under threat of crackdown, and the risk of jail exists for anyone caught violating the government's strict rules.
The Google employees' open letter, currently signed by 36 employees, notes that the Chinese government is "openly expanding and tools of population control." These tools range from facial-recognition software ostensibly aimed at curbing jaywalking to nearly omnipresent surveillance cameras .
The workers want no part in China's growing surveillance state. The implementation of Dragonfly would only augment the government's ability to punish dissenters and repress already vulnerable groups, they warn.
"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."
Google's Dragonfly app would allow the company access to a market that has mainly subsisted on homegrown and censorship-friendly internet products, like the search engine Baidu. Several that Dragonfly would aid in the state's repressive tactics by linking users' search queries to their phone numbers, and blocking searches for terms like "human rights."
Speaking at an , Google CEO Sundar Pichai said Dragonfly was in "exploratory stages where teams are debating and doing things, so sometimes being fully transparent at that stage can cause issues." Pichai added that while there were "genuine issues teams are grappling with," Google remained "more committed to transparency than probably any company in the world."
Amnesty International disagrees. In a , Joe Westby, Amnesty’s researcher on technology and human rights, didn't mince words:
“Google needs to stop equivocating and make a decision. Will it defend a free and open internet for people globally? Or will it help create a world where some people in some countries are shut out from the benefits of the internet and routinely have their rights undermined online?”
The global aid organization launched a petition against Project Dragonfly on Tuesday, sending protesters outside of Google's offices in an effort to convince the company to curtail the project. The move at offices across the country in protest of sexual misconduct at the company earlier this month.
The California-based company, famously founded on its "Don't Be Evil" motto, has a long history with the Chinese government. As far back as the year 2000, Google has been attempting to expand its services to the massive Chinese market.
While its Android phone operating system in terms of popularity in the country, it has long sought a way to get its main products like search and email back into the fore. As of now, it remains an open question whether that expansion will ever materialize.