Project Dragonfly: Google, Human Rights, and Censorship in China

In 2010, Google shut down its Chinese search engine after a cyberattack from within the country targeted Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Google had initially decided to offer a censored search engine in China because it believed that it was better to offer a limited, regulated search engine than it was to deprive millions of people of access to information. However, after the cyberattack and criticisms from Chinese authorities that the engine displayed “vulgar” results, Google abandoned its decision to cooperate with the demands of censorship. “We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn,” Google asserted in a post on its official blog. Google did not shut down its operations in China altogether; instead, it offered an uncensored version of its search engine that company spokespersons recognized would become regulated or even inaccessible. In this way, Google identified a compromise between alienating the world’s largest population of Internet users and accommodating censorship.

Perhaps given the controversy surrounding its initial decision to launch a censored search engine in the first place as well as its decision to stop doing so, Google decided to be more secretive with future projects involving censored search engines in China. Knowledge of “Project Dragonfly” was initially limited to a few Google employees — until The Intercept obtained confidential documents and published a story on August 1, 2018. Through this publication, Google employees learned about a new project to develop a censored search engine for the Chinese market.

In the weeks that followed, Google employees expressed frustration, namely with the secretive nature of the project as well as Google’s decision to return to accommodating censorship in China. Approximately 1,400 of Google’s 88,000 employees signed a letter to Google’s executives, demanding transparency and expressing concern about the company’s moral principles. “The decision to build Dragonfly was made in secret . . . Google employees need to know what we’re building.”

In response to the outrage, Google CEO Sundar Pichai insisted that the censored search engine was “in exploration stage” and “not close” to launching. However, his comments did little to assuage concerns of Google’s involvement with China. Initially an internal affair, news coverage of this conflict caught the attention of human rights advocates, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. On August 28, along with 17 other organizations and human rights advocates, Amnesty International shared an open letter denouncing Google’s plans to launch a censored search engine.

“It is difficult to see how Google would currently be able to relaunch a search engine service in China in a way that would be compatible with the company’s human rights responsibilities under international standards . . . Were it to do so, in other words, there is a high risk that the company would be directly contributing to, or complicit in, human rights violations.”

The Chinese government has faced constant criticism from international human rights organizations and advocates for years over their censorship policies. Chinese authorities have targeted and imprisoned individuals who have spoken out against government policies and in favor of freedom of expression. Opponents of Google’s censored search engine argue that if Google proceeds with Dragonfly, it will help perpetuate the Chinese government’s human rights abuses and further the anti-press agenda. Google has not yet mentioned any plan to prevent their platform from being used to target political dissidents.

The controversy surrounding Dragonfly is multifold. First, the secretive way Google executives handled what they likely knew would be a controversial project alienated many of its own employees. From the sentiments expressed in their letter, it seems that many employees worked on Dragonfly unwittingly — had they known about the nature of this project or been given a choice to be involved, they would not have worked on Dragonfly. Second, Google is backtracking on its commitments to freedom of expression that the company expressed in 2010, and has yet to provide an explanation for doing so. If censorship in China was so bad in 2010, what makes it different in 2018? Third, marketing a search engine that complies with Chinese censorship laws validates anti-press and anti-expression policies. By catering to the demands of a government that intensely monitors its citizens’ interactions and punishes dissidents, Google will be directly involved in committing such human rights abuses. Finally, if Google decides not to move forward with Dragonfly, it risks denying access to its platform to millions of people. Perhaps from Google’s perspective, proceeding with the project would not only help innocent internet users, but also Google’s own pockets.