Amnesty launches global day of action against secretive “Project Dragonfly”
Google’s plans to launch a censored search app in China could irreparably damage internet users’ trust in the tech company, Amnesty International said today, warning that going ahead with the app would set a dangerous precedent for tech companies enabling rights abuses by governments.
The organization has launched a global petition calling on Google CEO Sundar Pichai to drop the app, which is codenamed Project Dragonfly and would blacklist search terms like “human rights” and “Tiananmen Crackdown”. Following a public outcry from Google’s own workforce, Amnesty International is reaching out to the company’s staff through protests outside Google offices and targeted messages on LinkedIn calling on them to sign the petition. A spoof promotional video offering Google staff the chance to participate in Project Dragonfly ends with a twist on Google’s motto: “Don’t be evil – unless it’s profitable”.
“This is a watershed moment for Google. As the world’s number one search engine, it should be fighting for an internet where information is freely accessible to everyone, not backing the Chinese government’s dystopian alternative,” said Joe Westby, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Technology and Human Rights.
“Many of Google’s own staff have spoken out against these plans, unwilling to play a role in the Chinese government’s manipulation of information and persecution of dissidents. Their courageous and principled stance puts Google’s leadership to shame. Today we are standing with Google staff and asking them to join us in calling on Sundar Pichai to drop Project Dragonfly and reaffirm Google’s commitment to human rights.”
The Chinese government runs one of the world’s most repressive internet censorship and surveillance regimes. In 2010 Google publicly exited the search market in China, citing restrictions to freedom of expression online. Since then, the Chinese government has intensified its crackdown and it is unclear how Google would safeguard human rights in this environment.
Leaked internal documents obtained by The Intercept show that the prototype app that Google built under Project Dragonfly would comply with China’s censorship rules by automatically identifying and filtering websites blocked in China and “blacklisting sensitive queries”. According to The Intercept, the blacklist that Google itself developed for the project includes the terms “student protest” and “Nobel Prize” in Chinese, as well as phrases that imply criticism of China’s President Xi Jinping. Google would also be compelled to cooperate with Chinese censors in cracking down on posts related to developing social issues, such as the Chinese government’s response to the growing #MeToo movement and the Chinese government’s internment of ethnic minorities.
The prototype app would also make it easier for authorities to track individual users’ searches, which means there is a real danger that Google would be helping the Chinese government to arrest or imprison people. Chinese laws and regulations force tech companies to cooperate fully with inspections by public security officials.
Launching Project Dragonfly would also risk legitimizing China’s vision of the internet, which gives governments absolute control over what information is available to the population and the power to freely access all online data about their citizens. A recent report by Freedom House found that China is actively exporting its model of internet control around the world by conducting large-scale trainings for foreign officials, providing technology to other governments and forcing international companies to follow its rules even outside China.
In response to criticism over Project Dragonfly, Google has said it is committed to respecting the fundamental rights of its users. However, the company has failed to explain how it would square this commitment with a project that appears to accept censorship and surveillance. The company’s leadership has also tried to shrug off criticism by saying it has simply been exploring the possibility of re-entering the Chinese search market and that it does not know whether it “would or could” launch such a product. However leaked comments by a senior Google manager suggest that before the project was made public, the company had been working to have Project Dragonfly ready to launch as soon as possible.
“Google needs to stop equivocating and make a decision. Will it defend a free and open internet for people globally? Or will it help create a world where some people in some countries are shut out from the benefits of the internet and routinely have their rights undermined online?” said Joe Westby.
“If Google is happy to capitulate to the Chinese government’s draconian rules on censorship, what’s to stop it cooperating with other repressive governments who control the flow of information and keep tabs on their citizens? As a market leader, Google knows its actions will set a precedent for other tech companies. Sundar Pichai must do the right thing and drop Project Dragonfly for good.”