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Google Employees Revolt Over Planned Censored Search Engine in China

By NexChange
Financial Services

A couple of weeks after The Intercept detailed Google’s controversial strategy to re-enter the Chinese market with a censored version of its search engine, an employee revolt appears to have put the brakes on the plan – or at least slowed it down.

The Wall Street Journal reported that while Google chief executive officer Sundar Pichai defended the company’s plan to ramp up its business in China during an all-hands meeting last week, he also assured employees that it is “not close to launching a search product” in the country. About 1,400 Google employees signed a letter to management – obtained by the New York Times – demanding more transparency on ethical issues.

The Intercept‘s Ryan Ghallagher reported that the secret project –  known as Dragonfly – was launched last spring and then “accelerated following a December 2017 meeting between Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai and a top Chinese government official, according to internal Google documents and people familiar with the plans.” According to the leaked documents, “Google’s Chinese search app will automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall,” which is the name given to China’s strict internet censorship laws.

In the letter signed by employees, they took Google’s management to task for not keeping them informed on its plans, noting that “the decision to build Dragonfly was made in secret” and that most employees only learned about it through news reports.

“Here, we address an underlying structural problem: currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment,” the letter said.
They added that they “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.”
As both the Journal and the Times note, Google employees have become increasingly outspoken on issues that raise ethical concerns, including back in April when thousands of employees signed a letter protesting the company’s role in providing artificial intelligence to a Pentagon program aimed at improving the accuracy of drone strikes. In June, Google said it would not renew its contract with the Pentagon.
But in an interview with the Journal, Pichai maintained that Google has “a positive impact when we engage around the world and I don’t see any reason why that would be different in China.” He cited his experience of growing up in India “at a time when multinational companies operating in the region helped make a positive change.”

 

And yet, for many Google employees, the plan to re-enter mainland China with a censored version of its search engine could prove difficult to accept, given the dramatic way the company shutdown its service there in 2010. Google said at the time that it was forced to leave the country because of sophisticated cyber attacks allegedly originating out of China.“[During] our investigation into these attacks we had uncovered evidence to suggest that the Gmail accounts of dozens of human rights activists connected with China were being routinely accessed by third parties, most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on their computers,” Google said in a blog post announcing its decision to yank its service from the country.

While Pichai believes the company can have a “positive impact” in China, Brandon Downey, a former Google engineer, wrote an essay explaining how that reasoning was used the first time Google entered the market, noting “the company’s executives got employees to go along with their first push into China by arguing that giving the country’s citizens access to filtered results through a search engine was better than no Google search engine at all,” the Journal reports. Instead, Chinese authorities hacked Google to go after human rights activists and other dissidents.

Despite shutting down its search engine, Google has maintained a presence in the country with more than 700 employees based in China.

Photo: Getty iStock

 

 

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