Unrest at Google as employees protest Chinese search engine project

17 Aug 2018

Google bicycles at its Mountain View office in California. Image: Dreamframer/Shutterstock

Hundreds of Google staff are upset at the company’s alleged decision to create a censored version of its search engine for the Chinese market.

Google is facing another ethics controversy, this time around the company’s apparent intention to return to the Chinese market with a censored search engine.

Details of the project, dubbed Dragonfly, leaked in early August.

More employee criticism

Hundreds of staff have signed a letter criticising Google’s willingness to conform to the strict internet censorship regime in China. They said that the project raises “urgent moral and ethical issues”.

1,400 staff members have signed the letter, noting that the lack of detail about Project Dragonfly means they don’t have the information required to make “ethically informed decisions” about their work, projects and employment.

Employees added: “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 asked Google to allow staff to participate in ethical reviews of company products. Signatories also called for the appointment of external representatives and the publication of an ethical assessment of controversial projects.

The staff said that the Chinese project could violate the ‘Don’t be evil’ clause in Google’s code of conduct. To comply with censorship rules in the country, certain websites and search terms would be banned from the search engine.

Google said it will not comment on speculation about future projects.

Pichai speaks to staff

In a staff meeting, CEO Sundar Pichai said: “If we were to do our mission well, we are to think seriously about how to do more in China.

“That said, we are not close to launching a search product in China.” The Chinese government would still need to approve any Google plans.

In April, company staff spoke out against a Pentagon programme, Project Maven, which aimed to harness AI to improve weapons.

After months of agitation, Google said it would not renew a contract with the Pentagon for AI work in June of this year. It also unveiled ethical principles governing its use of AI, publicly committing to using the technology only in “socially beneficial” ways.

Google bicycles at its Mountain View office in CaliforniaImage: Dreamframer/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects