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Google’s Controversial ‘Dragonfly’ Project – What Now?

Android Nougat at Googleplex, the corporate headquarters complex of Google and its parent company Alphabet Inc
Employees speak out against Google’s Project Dragonfly, which aims to comply with China’s strict censorship rules as it expands to the country.

The debate on technology, whether it is a boon or a bane, has again come to the fore with one of the world’s foremost technology companies, Google, in the middle of it.

In June of this year, Google was forced to back down on a Pentagon project to supply its AI technology relating to drone targeting. Now, it is the proposal to re-enter the Chinese market, through what is called Project Dragonfly, that has put Google back in the spotlight.

Project Dragonfly will see Google launch its search engine services in China in a way that will comply with the country’s strict censorship policy. Once again, the strongest opposition has come from its own employees, 1,400 of whom have signed a letter addressed to the management to drop the controversial project.

Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, went before Congress on December 11, and after first claiming that Google had no plans to enter China, clarified that there are internal efforts and that nothing has been ruled out.

The ‘Dragonfly’ Project

Google has been wanting to re-enter China after it was shut out due to the censorship policies of the Chinese government. Internet usage is strictly controlled in China and the government decides what information should be shared with its citizens through the regulations of the so-called “Great Firewall of China.”

Despite this, Google has begun discussions with the Chinese authorities, offering a censored version of the the search engine’s services, dubbed “Dragonfly,” to the Chinese people. In order to comply with the Chinese government’s censorship policy, certain keywords will be blocked from the search results, essentially limiting the information that is available to the average Chinese citizen.

But Google maintains that the benefits to be had by the Chinese people through having access to the search engine, even in its censored form, still outweigh the negatives of some searches drawing a blank.

Chinese flag displayed in the street in Xining, China. Symbol of nationalism.
They express concern for certain sections of the Chinese population who receive ill-treatment at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.

Activist-Minded Employees Oppose

In most corporate cases of moral and ethical concern, opposition is heard from organizations such as Amnesty International and other such bodies that champion the cause of human rights. They express concern for certain sections of the Chinese population who receive ill-treatment at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. Now, where Google is concerned, a large number of employees have aligned with the views held by such activist organizations and have urged the company to drop the plan to enter China.

In August, 1,400 employees petitioned Google leadership to abandon Project Dragonfly in a letter that claimed the company was in violation of certain ethical principles. Since then, hundreds of additional employees co-signed another open letter expressing their stance against the project. Meanwhile, some ex-employees of Google have started a campaign against Dragonfly and have set up a fund to support those employees who may be adversely impacted by their opposition stance.

Opposition from the U.S. government seemed to be primarily concerned with security breaches when questioning Pichai on Tuesday. Members of Congress appeared fixated on the increased likelihood of Chinese hackers gaining access to U.S. information once Google’s reach was extended to China.

What Now?

Google appears to remain in talks with China, while asserting that no firm decisions have been made. But such strong opposition from within may force the company to reconsider.

Google is not alone in experiencing opposition from within. Microsoft faced a similar situation over dealings with the U.S. Immigration authorities, while Amazon had its staff opposing its plans to offer facial recognition software to the police.

Watching large corporations weigh up the benefits of profits against corporate social responsibility is a common theme and raises countless issues surrounding transparency. But to many activists, human rights organizations and even casual observers of the Project Dragonfly story, it is reassuring to see employees take a stand from the inside. At this stage, whether Google will heed the concerns of its staff or proceed with Project Dragonfly remains to be seen.

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