In December, Google announced it was opening an artificial intelligence lab in Beijing and in June, Google invested $550 million in JD.com, a Chinese e-commerce platform that is second only to Alibaba in the country. The companies said they would collaborate on retail solutions around the world without mentioning China, where Google services including Gmail and YouTube are blocked.
Opposition to Google's planned expansion into China is mounting, with human rights groups and even the company's own employees demanding a censored search engine codenamed "Dragonfly" be withdrawn. An open letter from Google employees published Tuesday called on the company to cancel Dragonfly amid concerns that it could be utilized by the Chinese state to bolster surveillance efforts and violate the rights of Chinese citizens. "Many of us accepted employment at Google with the company's values in mind," said the letter, which was co-signed by over 300 Google employees. The Google dissenters were joined by human rights groups including Amnesty International, which warned that releasing Dragonfly as planned "would set a dangerous precedent for tech companies enabling rights abuses by governments." "This is a watershed moment for Google," Amnesty said.
Hundreds of Google employees have signed an open letter published Tuesday on Medium demanding that the company cease work on Project Dragonfly, which is aimed at creating a search engine that the Chinese government would be able to control to censor certain results and surveil users. "International human rights organizations and investigative reporters have also sounded the alarm, emphasizing serious human rights concerns and repeatedly calling on Google to cancel the project," the letter reads in part. "So far, our leadership's response has been unsatisfactory." Google has kept much of Project Dragonfly under wraps, but news outlets like the Intercept have obtained documents revealing some of the details. The search engine reportedly would block websites having to do with democracy and political dissidents and also blacklist terms like "human rights."
The internal dissent over Dragonfly comes on the heels of the employee protests over Google's involvement in the Pentagon project to use artificial intelligence. After Google said it would not renew its contract with the Pentagon, it unveiled a series of ethical principles governing its use of A.I. In those principles, Google publicly committed to use A.I. only in "socially beneficial" ways that would not cause harm and promised to develop its capabilities in accordance with human rights law. Some employees have raised concerns that helping China suppress the free flow of information would violate these new principles. In 2010, Google said it had discovered that Chinese hackers had attacked the company's corporate infrastructure in an attempt to access to the Gmail accounts of human rights activists.