Google employees are demanding answers from the company’s leadership amid growing internal protests over plans to launch a censored search engine in China.
Staff inside the internet giant’s offices have agreed that the censorship project raises “urgent moral and ethical issues” and have circulated a letter saying so, calling on bosses to disclose more about the company’s work in China, which they say is shrouded in too much secrecy, according to three sources with knowledge of the matter.
The internal furor began after The Intercept earlier this month revealed detailsabout the censored search engine, which would remove content that China’s authoritarian government views as sensitive, such as information about political dissidents, free speech, democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest. It would “blacklist sensitive queries” so that “no results will be shown” at all when people enter certain words or phrases, leaked Google documents disclosed. The search platform is to be launched via an Android app, pending approval from Chinese officials.
The censorship plan – code-named Dragonfly – was not widely known within Google. Prior to its public exposure, only a few hundred of Google’s 88,000 employees had been briefed about the project – around 0.35 percent of the total workforce. When the news spread through the company’s offices across the world, many employees expressed anger and confusion.
Now, a letter has been circulated among staff calling for Google’s leadership to recognize that there is a “code yellow” situation – a kind of internal alert that signifies a crisis is unfolding. The letter suggests that the Dragonfly initiative violates an internal Google artificial intelligence ethical code, which says that the company will not build or deploy technologies “whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.”
“Google employees need to know what we’re building.”
The letter says: “Currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment. That the decision to build Dragonfly was made in secret, and progressed with the [artificial intelligence] Principles in place, makes clear that the Principles alone are not enough. 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 goes on to demand “an ethics review that includes rank and file employee representatives”; the appointment of an ombudsperson to oversee the process; a plan for more transparency to be instituted across the company so that employees can make ethical choices about what they choose to work on; and “ethical test cases” assessing the Chinese censorship plans. The effort to write and circulate the letter was partly led by a group of Google employees who previously protested the company’s work with the U.S. military to build artificial intelligence that could identify vehicles and other objects in drone footage. That protest was successful and led to Google allowing its contract with the military to expire.
Many Google employees are members of the Association of Computing Machinery, the world’s largest organization for computing professionals. The ACM’s ethical code states that its members should “take action to avoid creating systems or technologies that disenfranchise or oppress people” and “use their skills for the benefit of society.” Two Google sources told The Intercept that they felt the Dragonfly project clearly violated the ACM’s code of ethics, which has led them to support the protests inside the company against the planned China censorship.
Google’s leadership has still not spoken to employees about Dragonfly, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to contact the media. Publicly, Google’s press office has declined to answer any questions from reporters about the censorship, and has said only that it will not comment on “speculation about future plans.”
The silence from Google bosses appears to have fueled anger within the company. Discussion has raged among Google employees, with some questioning their managers, only to be told that details about Dragonfly cannot be shared. It has emerged that at least one Google staffer who worked on Dragonfly left the company partly due to concerns about the project, and another employee who was asked to work on it refused to do so.