Google’s Return To China: A Farewell To Human Rights?


In a recent article, The Intercept reported that Google is developing a new search engine and news app codenamed ‘Project Dragonfly,’ that will be censored to comply with China’s restrictive censorship laws and other legal requirements. The search engine would “blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest.” Google previously entered the Chinese market in 2006 and operated successfully until 2010 when the company pulled out claiming it was standing up against Chinese censorship and human rights abuses. Yet, Google, which once upheld the mantra ‘don’t be evil,’ has now watered it down to ‘do the right thing.’ If the reports are true, this change in mantra may also reflect a shift in Google’s moral compass about how it does business – that the biggest search engine in the world is content with exchanging human rights for profit.

Google has not fully denied the report. The company made a statement to The Verge, saying that they “provide[d] 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… don’t comment on speculation about future plans.” China researcher Patrick Poon from Amnesty International also commented on the report: “[i]n putting profits before human rights, Google would be setting a chilling precedent and handing the Chinese government a victory.” Poon continued, “[t]his also raises serious questions as to what safeguards Google is putting in place to protect users’ privacy. Would Google rollover and hand over personal data should the Chinese authorities request?.” On August 3, six United States senators sent a bipartisan letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai stating that if reports about Project Dragonfly were factual, then the project is “deeply troubling and risks making Google complicit in human rights abuses related to China’s rigorous censorship regime” and that Google risks “set[ting] a worrying precedent for other companies seeking to do business in China without compromising their core values.”

Dozens of human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have also sent a letter to Google, urging the company not to return to China with a censored search engine. The joint letter calls on the tech giant’s CEO to explain what measures the company is taking to safeguard users from the Chinese government’s censorship and surveillance and describes the project as “an alarming capitulation by Google on human rights.” The letter continued, stating that “the Chinese government extensively violates the rights to freedom of expression and privacy; by accommodating the Chinese authorities’ repression of dissent, Google would be actively participating in those violations for millions of internet users in China.” Furthermore, the piece argued that, “It is difficult to see how Google would currently be able to re-launch a search engine service in China in a way that would be compatible with the company’s human rights responsibilities under international standards, or its own commitments.”

In addition, another letter was signed by more than a thousand Google employees protesting the company’s rumoured plan to build the Chinese search engine. Internal discussions cited by BuzzFeed indicated that a number of Google employees were unknowingly contributing to the project. Similar concerns have also been raised by Google employees in regards to ‘Project Maven’, a US Department of Defence contract to build artificial intelligence (AI)-assisted drone technology. Due to internal and external pressure, Google announced that it would end its involvement in Maven in 2019 once its contract with the project expires. The company responded that it ensured to uphold its Al principles that it would only create products that are “socially beneficial” and “technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.” As Google seems to not be upholding its Al Principles in regards to the Dragonfly project, the letter called on executives to review current ethics and transparency at the company in regards to both the Dragonfly and Maven projects.

Google’s response to The Intercept report is disappointing. For being a multi billion-dollar company that millions of people use daily, its unsettling to see the organization place profits over the very people that use its service. It is promising to see human rights groups, senators and even Google employees call for change and transparency to be upheld by such an influential and forward thinking company. Companies making decisions about free speech abroad is extremely complicated business, but there are a number of ways that companies can push back against pro-censorship governments without losing out on those markets. For example, The Atlantic stated that, “Companies can set up stringent review processes for legal takedown requests.” Stringent reviews can ensure that governments do not use internet services to advance their censor content. Reporting and transparent policies can also promote local activism and help aid in the changing of repressive laws.

Therefore, if Project Dragonfly is true, it is hoped that Google responds to the joint letter by multiple human rights groups in how it is going to protect the human rights of millions of Chinese users. If Google were to provide such a review, this could create an excellent precedent for other companies to follow, where services can be provided to the giant and important Chinese market while also being transparent about human rights. If Google were to not create such a review, the precedent could consequentially be highly detrimental.

The United States stands as the figure head of the free world, yet Google, an American internet company seems to be content with providing accessible information at the cost of continued repressive government control filtered through it’s systems. The company’s co-founder Sergey Brin grew up in the former Soviet Union and stated in 2010 that China resembles the “same earmarks of totalitarianism” that he experienced. Google must remember what the company’s co-founder originally believed in, don’t do evil.

Katrina Hope