Google employees are protesting the company’s secrecy over censored search engine in ChinaAugust 16, 2018
About a thousand Google employees have signed a letter protesting the company’s efforts to build a censored version of its search engine in China, as reported by the New York Times. The letter calls for more transparency and consideration of the human rights issues involved, as internet monitoring and collaboration with the Chinese government is used to stifle dissident voices and even put activists’ personal information at risk.
The letter reads “currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment,” as two anonymous sources informed the Times. It continued, “Google employees need to know what we’re building.”
On August 3rd, The Intercept and The Information reported that Google is working on a censored search app and a censored news app for China, with the ultimate aim being to revive a censored version of its search engine in the country. Work on the apps reportedly began last year and has been kept secret by the company. Google declined to comment on the news. The company left China in 2010, after an attempt to run an uncensored search engine did not sit well with Beijing.
The move to return marks a huge reversal from the company’s position years ago, back when its motto was “Don’t Be Evil.” When Google was staunch about internet freedom issues, it even had a position in Asia called Head of Free Expression. Last Friday, Lokman Tsui, the former head of free expression at Google commented on the move to The Intercept, calling it “a really bad idea, a stupid move.” Tsui elaborated, “In these past few years things have been deteriorating so badly in China – you cannot be there without compromising yourself…I can’t see a way to operate Google search in China without violating widely held international human rights standards.”
Employees have been protesting the decision to build a censored search engine by internally circulating memes that lament a lack of results when searching for the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, and by posting (since deleted) tweets decrying the move.
Non-profits like Amnesty International and more recently, the Electric Frontier Foundation, have published statements in response. The EFF wrote yesterday that other tech companies like Facebook and Apple were eyeing China eagerly and the main search engine competitor in China, Baidu, had received backlash for deceptive ads and phishing sites. But even if China did need Google and the move was understandable from a business perspective, “in 2018, the potential for damage when large tech companies cooperate with repressive states has grown,” the EFF explained. Echoing Google employees’ words, the EFF wrote “it’s this lack of transparency that concerns us most…It is better to have this debate now, in public, than to pick up the pieces when the damage has been done.”
Google did not immediately respond to comment. The company has repeatedly ignored requests for comment, despite being responsive to commenting on other stories. Its sole statement on its situation in China is from August 3rd: “We provide a number of mobile apps in China, such as Google Translate and Files Go, help Chinese developers, and have made significant investments in Chinese companies like JD.com. But we don’t comment on speculation about future plans.”