SAN FRANCISCO – Google's plan to launch a censored search engine in China requires more "transparency, oversight and accountability," hundreds of employees at the Alphabet Inc. unit said in an internal petition seen by Reuters on Thursday. Hoping to gain approval from the Chinese government to provide a mobile search service, the company plans to block some websites and search terms, Reuters reported this month, citing two people familiar with the matter. Disclosure of the secretive effort has disturbed some Google employees and human rights advocacy organizations. They are concerned that by agreeing to censorship demands, Google would validate China's prohibitions on free expression and violate the "don't be evil" clause in the company's code of conduct. After employees petitioned this year, Google announced it would not renew a project to help the U.S. military develop artificial intelligence technology for drones.
An unprecedented wave of rank-and-file rebellion is sweeping Big Tech. At one company after another, employees are refusing to help the US government commit human rights abuses at home and abroad. At Google, workers organized to shut down Project Maven, a Pentagon project that uses machine learning to improve targeting for drone strikes – and won. At Amazon, workers are pushing Jeff Bezos to stop selling facial recognition to police departments and government agencies, and to cut ties with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice). At Microsoft, workers are demanding the termination of a $19.4m cloud deal with Ice.
Google refused to confirm if it's truly been developing a censored search engine for China after reports about the project's existence came out, but it might soon have no choice but to come clean. A group of six Democratic and Republican Senators led by Marco Rubio has penned a letter addressed to Google chief Sundar Pichai demanding concrete answers. They want to know once and for all whether the tech giant is conjuring up a version of its search engine that'll work behind the Great Firewall. The Senators called the move "deeply troubling" if true, pointing out that that it "risks making Google complicit in human rights abuses related to China's rigorous censorship regime." While the company has yet to confirm the project (reportedly called "Dragonfly"), it's easy to see why the Senators would be concerned.
Facial-recognition technology is not new, but it has progressed immensely in the past few years, mainly because of advances in artificial intelligence. Naturally, this has drawn the interest of Silicon Valley, advertising agencies, hardware manufacturers, and the government. But not everyone is thrilled. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and 35 other advocacy groups, for example, sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos demanding that his company stop providing advanced facial-recognition technology to law enforcement, warning that it could be misused against immigrants and protesters. Early iterations of the technology, which dates back to the 1960s, were clunky.
Google (Alphabet) recently decided to end its participation in a US military drone program, whereby Google had been supplying its AI technology to the US government. This came after 4,000 Googlers decried the company's involvement in what could turn into "autonomous killing machines," demanding an exit from "the business of war." It was Google deciding to live up to its "Don't be evil" mantra. Apparently that same credo doesn't apply to embracing state-sponsored censorship in authoritarian China. Eight years ago Google co-founder Sergey Brin told The Wall Street Journal, "[I]n some aspects of [China's] policy, particularly with respect to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see some earmarks of totalitarianism."
Eight years after their very public falling out, could China and Google be pals once again? Whispers circulating Monday, first reported by The Intercept, suggested that Google would soon launch a Chinese version of its search engine that will kowtow to the Chinese Communist Party by scrubbing various bête noires: not least criticism of its human-rights record, calls for Tibetan independence and the bloodshed around Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Recently, Google removed its long-time unofficial motto, "don't be evil," from its corporate code of conduct. If you need an understanding as to why they'd make such an update, here's the perfect example. The Intercept is reporting that the company is readying a censored version of its search engine in a custom Android app to launch in China. To comply with the Chinese government's strict internet censorship laws, Google's China-only search engine app would block websites and search terms about human rights, peaceful protests, political dissidents, democracy, police brutality, religion, and more. A whistleblower provided the Intercept with the internal Google documents related to the project, codenamed "Dragonfly."
China's relationship with Google is fractious at best, but it's no secret that the search giant wants to make inroads in what is a largely untapped market. However, its latest alleged plan could send tech's political sphere into a tailspin. According to The Intercept, Google is working on a censored version of its search engine for the country -- one which will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion and protest. The project, codenamed Dragonfly, has been in the works since spring 2017 and could be ready to launch within the next six to nine months, according to unnamed sources familiar with the plan. Apparently the project was given the go-ahead during a meeting between Google's CEO Sundar Pichai and a top Chinese government official, although it still needs final approval from China.
Amazon's face surveillance technology is the target of growing opposition nationwide, and today, there are 28 more causes for concern. In a test the ACLU recently conducted of the facial recognition tool, called "Rekognition," the software incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress, identifying them as other people who have been arrested for a crime. The members of Congress who were falsely matched with the mugshot database we used in the test include Republicans and Democrats, men and women, and legislators of all ages, from all across the country. Our test used AmazonRekognition to compare images of members of Congress with a database of mugshots. The results included 28 incorrect matches.