Google’s Reckless “Dragonfly” Project Will Strengthen Authoritarianism in China
In 2010, Google announced that it would cease offering censored search and news services in China, as it could no longer tolerate the Chinese government’s attempts to suppress information or spy on human rights activists through its services. Unfortunately, it seems that the company has more recently had a change of heart.
In August, documents were leaked detailing a new project from Google codenamed “Dragonfly” to bring back search and news services that complied with China’s burdensome censorship requirements. If launched, Google would join Yahoo, Bing, and several domestic search engines in presenting a view of the Internet carefully restricted by the ruling Communist party. The revelation immediately spurred a coalition of 14 human rights groups to condemn the plan. Many employees have urged the company to drop the project, both in an internal letter and in a public statement issued in late November.
Not all Google employees oppose Dragonfly, however. In another letter, the signatories argue that Dragonfly fits in with Google’s broader mission of organizing the world’s information and making it accessible and useful. While the letter acknowledges the human rights concerns at issue, it offers no specific solutions.
Access to information is critical for a free and prospering society, and China’s censorship laws heavily undermine that access. Any internet company looking to do business in China will need to block content related to a long and ever-growing list of forbidden keywords including “human rights,” “anticommunism,” and “Tiananmen Square,” along with entire publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. If Google truly plans to stay true to its stated goal of making the world’s information more accessible, it can’t allow itself to be used as a tool to suppress basic facts of history.
Dragonfly presents a danger not just in the information it hides, but in the information it collects as well. The Chinese government is known for its expansive surveillance over its population. Due to regulations over data storage and compliance with government data requests, there are serious concerns that the vast data Google collects about its users will only further feed the government’s efforts to spy on dissidents. Because search histories would be linked to users, the Chinese government could easily target those who seek out forbidden information.
When Google shut down many of its Chinese services in 2010, it noted that a major motivating factor had been the cyber attacks targeting the accounts of Chinese human rights advocates. Now, however, Google seems much less concerned with the privacy of its users. According to an in-depth report from the Intercept, multiple former and current employees claim that the teams responsible for evaluating the privacy and security of their products have been shut out of Dragonfly. A report from the privacy team concluded that Google would be expected to be a part of the Chinese government’s surveillance apparatus and would be less able to push back against Chinese demands for data than they are in the US and Europe. However, the project’s leadership consistently stonewalled attempts to raise these issues.
It’s not too late for Google to change course. According to CEO Sundar Pichai, Dragonfly is still in an early experimental phase (although the Intercept reports that staff had been told to prepare for an early 2019 launch). While expanding access to information is an important goal, attempting to do so at the cost of being a tool for censorship and surveillance will ultimately do more harm than good to the people of China. Whatever information to which they gain access will be seen through the distorted lense of the regime’s blacklist, and Google’s cavalier attitude toward privacy will endanger anyone fighting for a more free China.