Google’s own employees have publicly called for the search giant to abandon plans to develop a censored search engine for the Chinese market to meet the communist government’s requirements for it to start operating again in the country.
Google confirmed the existence of the secretive project to re-enter China, code-named Dragonfly, last month.
The development of a search engine that complies with China’s censorship regime would allow Google to re-enter the market after a decade’s absence.
A letter published online, signed by 60 Google employees, said they are among thousands of the company’s employees who have “raised our voices for months” about the controversial project.
“International human rights organisations and investigative reporters have also sounded the alarm, emphasising serious human rights concerns and repeatedly calling on Google to cancel the project. So far, our leadership’s response has been unsatisfactory,” they said in an online post.
“Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be.”
The employees cited the Chinese government’s unprecedented use of advanced technologies for surveillance to track and profile citizens like its Uighur minorities and dissident groups.
The employees said that they 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”.
“We no longer believe this is the case. This is why we’re taking a stand.”
China has 800 million internet users, which is an attractive market for western technology companies, but the Chinese government routinely blocks Chinese internet users from accessing major western services such as Facebook, Google, Twitter as well as media websites, including Australia’s ABC.
For anyone living in China to access the Google search engine, they must overcome the Great Firewall using an App called a VPN. Popular VPNs are also regularly blocked.
Google withdrew its search engine from China in 2010 after it discovered the Gmail accounts of activists with connections to China had been hacked, and the persistent blocking of websites.
Google continued to have a research presence in China and its chief executive Sundar Pichai attended China’s premier internet conference last year to talk about the growth of artificial intelligence.
Pichai has given a series of interviews in recent months defending Google’s intentions to relaunch in the Chinese market and told that Google services are also censored, in a way, in places such as Europe to comply with local laws.
Amnesty International launched a global day of action against the Dragonfly project on Wednesday describing the Chinese government’s plan as “dystopian”.
“This is a watershed moment for Google. As the world’s number one search engine, it should be fighting for an internet where information is freely accessible to everyone,” said Amnesty International researcher on technology and human rights researcher Joe Westby.
China is a major business opportunity for Google where it controls as much as 90 per cent of the mobile market with its android operating system.
“If Google were to operate in China, what would it look like? What queries will we be able to serve?” Pichai said during an event hosted by Wired last month. “It turns out we’ll be able to serve well over 99 percent of the queries.”
But it had already caused a furor within the company. In August,a media organization has obtained an internal letter signed by 1,400 employees demanding more transparency to understand the ethical consequences of their work on project Dragonfly.
“Currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment,” said the email.