Google China Censored Search Coverage

Thursday, 16 August 2018

My reporting so far on the Google-China censorship story:

Google Plans to Launch Censored Search Engine in China, Leaked Documents Reveal (1 August)

Google Struggles to Contain Employee Uproar Over China Censorship Plans (3 August)

Lawmakers Pressure Google Over “Deeply Troubling” China Censorship Project (4 August)

Inside Google’s Effort to Develop a Censored Search Engine in China (8 August)

Questions for Google on China Censorship (9 August)

How Google's China Censorship Would Likely Violate Its Human Rights Commitments (12 August)

Google China Censorship Project Named After Co-Founder Sergey Brin's Luxury Yacht? (16 August)

Google Staff Tell Bosses China Censorship is “Moral and Ethical” Crisis (16 August)

Google Executives Misled Staff in Meeting on China Censorship. Here Are 13 Questions They Must Answer. (17 August)

World’s Leading Human Rights Groups Tell Google to Cancel Its China Censorship Plan (28 August)

Senior Google Scientist Resigns Over “Forfeiture of Our Values” in China (13 September)

Google China Prototype Links Searches to Phone Numbers (14 September)

Google Suppresses Memo Revealing Plans to Closely Track Search Users in China (21 September)

Former Google Scientist Tells Senate to Act Over Company’s “Unethical and Unaccountable” China Censorship Plan (26 September)

Leaked Transcript of Private Meeting Contradicts Google’s Official Story on China (9 October)

Google CEO Tells Senators That Censored Chinese Search Engine Could Provide “Broad Benefits” (12 October)

A few interviews on the topic:

PRI's The World (2 August)

NPR (2 August)

CNBC (2 August)

BBC (at 14m) (2 August)

Tech News Today (2 August)

ABC (6 August)

TBS EFM (15 August)

PRI's The World (17 August)

Slate "If Then" podcast (22 August)

Google China Censorship Project Named After Co-Founder Sergey Brin's Luxury Yacht?

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Google co-founder Sergey Brin is the owner of what is reportedly one of the world’s fastest motor yachts. The luxurious 240-foot boat (pictured below) is worth $80 million and has nine cabins and space for 18 guests and 16 crew. It has an open-air cinema, a bar, and a jacuzzi on the sundeck, which can be converted into a dance floor.

But that is all less interesting to me than the boat’s name: Dragonfly. As I reported for The Intercept earlier this month, Google has since spring 2017 been working on a secretive project to launch a censored search engine in China. And the internal code-name for the China project is… Dragonfly.

I’ll explain why this small detail is very curious.

Back in 2006, Google launched a censored search engine in China. But four years later, in March 2010, it pulled the service out of the country, citing Chinese government efforts to limit free speech, block websites, and hack Google’s computer systems.

At that time, Sergey Brin was one of the main forces inside Google arguing that the company should not be complicit in Chinese government censorship. As a child, he had spent six years with his family in the Soviet Union, and he was all too familiar with state repression.

After Google pulled its search engine out of China in 2010, Brin said of the Chinese government: “In some aspects of their policy, particularly with respect to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see the same earmarks of totalitarianism, and I find that personally quite troubling."

It’s clear Brin was at the time genuinely uncomfortable with the censorship – he didn't just say what he did for public relations reasons. I have heard this from several people inside the company who spent years working with him. He took a principled stand and had arguments with colleagues over the issue.

In recent years, Brin has taken a more hands-off role at Google. Since 2015, CEO Sundar Pichai has taken the helm, and he has steered the company’s policy on China. But Brin still serves on Google’s board of directors, and would surely have been briefed on the search engine plans, given their importance for Google both politically and strategically. So did Brin change his mind about the censorship? Was he simply outvoted by his colleagues on the issue?

More to the point at hand, why was the Chinese censorship project given the same name as Brin’s yacht? Is it possible somebody inside Google is trying to troll Brin, knowing that he has in the past spoken out against the Chinese government censorship? Or was Brin himself involved in giving the project this name, indicating that he has changed his views? Or is it all just some bizarre coincidence?

I’ll have to add this to my long list of questions for Google (which the company has still not answered, by the way).



How Google's China Censorship Would Likely Violate Its Human Rights Commitments

Sunday, 12 August 2018

As I recently reported, Google is planning to launch a censored search engine in China. The search engine has been designed to remove content that China’s authoritarian government views as sensitive, such as information about political opponents, free speech, democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest. It would “blacklist sensitive queries” so that “no results will be shown” at all when people enter certain words or phrases.

Google’s development of the censored search engine has been condemned by US senators and human rights groups and triggered anger inside the company, with many Google employees feeling that the project is a betrayal of Google’s mission to be a force for good in the world and provide open access to information.

Significantly, Google’s development of the search engine calls into question the company’s adherence to ethical principles and human rights codes of conduct that it has previously committed to implement. Below, I've put together a short summary detailing some of the codes of practice and human rights standards that Google’s China censorship would likely violate. (I have asked Google to explain its censorship plans, but so far it has refused to comment.)


Google is a member of the Global Network Initiative (GNI), an organization that seeks to defend digital rights across the world. Companies that join the GNI – like Google – commit to implementing its Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy. The principles make clear that member companies should not engage in the sort of broad censorship that is widespread in China, stating:

Participating companies will respect and work to protect the freedom of expression rights of users when confronted with government demands, laws and regulations to suppress freedom of expression, remove content or otherwise limit access to communications, ideas and information in a manner inconsistent with internationally recognized laws and standards.

Google's search engine plan also has privacy and surveillance implications, because companies providing internet services in China have to operate their servers and data centres in the country, which means user data is accessible to Chinese authorities, who have a track record of monitoring and harassing human rights activists and journalists critical of the ruling Communist Party regime. It is unclear how Google proposes moving its data centres to China while protecting the privacy of Chinese users. The GNI principles are clear on this issue:

Participating companies will employ protections with respect to personal information in all countries where they operate in order to work to protect the privacy rights of users.


Participating companies will respect and work to protect the privacy rights of users when confronted with government demands, laws or regulations that compromise privacy in a manner inconsistent with internationally recognized laws and standards.

The GNI’s principles incorporate parts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the pillars of international human rights law. Operating a censored search engine in accordance with Chinese government demands would seem to clearly contravene Article 19 of the declaration, which states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights advise (emphasis added):

Business enterprises should respect human rights. This means that they should avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved.

Companies should also, the Guiding Principles say (emphasis added):

Avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and address such impacts when they occur; [and] seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.

The UN explains:

Companies complicit in human rights abuses committed by others, including States – for example, if they collude with security forces in violently suppressing protests or provide information on their customers to States that then use it to track down and punish dissidents.

The Association of Computing Machinery is the world’s largest organisation for computing professionals. Many Google employees are ACM members. According to the ACM’s ethical code, goals of technology development should be (emphasis added):

[To] contribute to society and to human well-being, acknowledging that all people are stakeholders in computing. This principle, which concerns the quality of life of all people, affirms an obligation of computing professionals, both individually and collectively, to use their skills for the benefit of society, its members, and the environment surrounding them. This obligation includes promoting fundamental human rights and protecting each individual's right to autonomy.

The ACM's ethical code also says that (emphasis added):

Technologies and practices should be as inclusive and accessible as possible and computing professionals should take action to avoid creating systems or technologies that disenfranchise or oppress people. Failure to design for inclusiveness and accessibility may constitute unfair discrimination.

Earlier this year, there were protests inside Google over a project to help develop artificial intelligence for U.S. military drones. The protests caused Google to cancel the project and release a set of artificial intelligence ethical principles. One of the principles was that Google would not "design or deploy":

Technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.

The artificial intelligence principles have a direct bearing on Google’s plans to launch a censored search engine, because Google’s search technology incorporates artificial intelligence to help provide people better search results. Operating a censored search engine in China in compliance with the Communist Party's censorship demands would self-evidently amount to a violation of — or at least complicity in violations of — "accepted principles of international law and human rights," such as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because it would restrict Chinese citizens' "freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information."

Questions for Google on China Censorship

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Last week, I revealed that Google has been working on a confidential plan to launch a censored search engine in China. Since then, several human rights groups have called on Google to cancel the project, and a bipartisan group of six US senators have condemned it as "deeply troubling." Only a a few hundred of Google's employees knew about the project -- code-named Dragonfly -- before we revealed its existence. And once the news spread through the company, a wave of anger spread through its offices across the world.

Despite this, Google has not yet issued any public statement and internally managers have refused to address employee concerns. Dozens of reporters have questioned Google about Dragonfly but have been met with a wall of silence. I have now published several stories about the project and have not received a single response to multiple inquiries I have sent Google's press office. I have worked on many stories involving top secret information from government spy agencies like the NSA and GCHQ, and I have found them to be more responsive to my questions than Google has been in regard to Dragonfly -- seriously.

It is not tenable for Google to continue to stay silent in the face of widespread concerns about the project, which would affect hundreds of millions of people in China and have implications for internet freedom globally. Google's leadership must come out and provide an explanation to the public.

Here are a number of questions that Google should answer. I have sent these to the company and in the unlikely event that I receive a response I will post it here.


1) In 2010, Google pulled its search engine out of China, citing efforts to limit free speech, block websites, and hack Google computer systems as reasons why it “could no longer continue censoring our results.” Since 2010, according to analysts and human rights groups, internet censorship in China has become more pervasive. Can you explain why Google wants to now relaunch a censored version of its search engine in China? What has changed in the last eight years that has prompted this decision? Does Google leadership no longer have concerns about censorship in China, or the “forces of totalitarianism” in the country that co-founder Sergey Brin described in 2010?

2) A bipartisan group of six US senators has called Google’s censorship plans for China “deeply troubling.” Human rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Access Now, Reporters Without Borders, and Human Rights in China have each issued statements raising concerns about the project. Amnesty said: “It is impossible to see how such a move is compatible with Google’s ‘do the right thing’ motto, and we are calling on the company to change course.” What is Google’s response to this?

3) Before and during the planning and development of the censored search engine, did Google consult with any human rights experts familiar with the situation in China? If so, what did these experts advise and did Google accept their recommendations? Will Google publish any advice it received from China human rights experts? If Google did not consult any organisations specialising in Chinese human rights issues, why not?

4) The Association of Computing Machinery is the world’s largest organisation for computing professionals. Many Google employees are ACM members. According to the ACM’s ethical code, goals of technology development should be “to contribute to society and to human well-being” and “promoting human rights and protecting each individual’s right to autonomy.” The code also states that, “computing professionals should take action to avoid creating systems or technologies that disenfranchise or oppress people.” Does Google believe that its censored search platform for China is consistent with the ACM’s ethical code?

5) Earlier this year, there were protests inside Google over a project to help develop artificial intelligence for U.S. military drones. The protests caused Google to cancel the project and release a set of artificial intelligence ethical principles. One of the principles was that Google should not help build “technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.” Does Google only hold this value in relation to artificial intelligence work? If this principle applies more broadly to all of Google’s work, can Google explain how its planned censored search engine in China does not contravene “widely accepted principles of international law and human rights”?

6) According to Google documents I have seen, the censored search engine will operate as part of a “joint venture” with another company, which will presumably be based out of China, because internet companies providing services in China are required by law to operate their servers and data centers in the country. My understanding is that Google will supply the third-party company with an “application programming interface,” or API, which will potentially allow it to add blacklisted words or phrases to the search engine without Google’s approval. Is this correct? How will the relationship with the partner company work in practice, and how will Google have oversight of the phrases and websites and other information that is censored?

7) Will Google publicly release, outside of China, the list of blacklisted websites and "sensitive search queries" that will be censored? If not, why not?

8) Who at Google approves particular websites or search terms to be censored? Is this a decision made by legal and policy teams, or can blacklists be created by programmers and engineers? Is there a single person with ultimate authority over this duty, or is control delegated to a particular department?

9) Google employees were told not to discuss the project with colleagues. Only a few hundred of the company's 88,000 staff knew about it. Why did Google feel the need to keep the project so secret inside the company?

10) Google employees say the company's leadership has issued no internal statement yet about Dragonfly since the news broke, despite widespread concern about it within the company. Why? Does Google plan to issue a statement to employees?

11) Companies operating in China are required by law to turn over data to security agencies upon request. How will Google safeguard its Chinese users’ data from the Communist Party regime, which routinely targets people – including human rights activists and journalists – who express criticism of its orthodoxies? How will Google ensure that information about people's search queries are not monitored by the Chinese state?

12) Google’s stated central mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The company’s informal motto is “don’t be evil.” Google has since its early years maintained a list of “10 things” that represent foundational values for the company. One of these values is: “You can make money without doing evil.” Another is: “Democracy on the web works.” Can Google explain how these values are consistent with its plan to launch a censored search engine in China, which will limit people’s access to information about subjects such as human rights, democracy and peaceful protest?



WikiLeaks-Trump timeline

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

I put together a short timeline comparing WikiLeaks' public statements on Trump with its leaked private comments on him. Useful for anybody trying to keep track of all the duplicity that's going on:


Privately, 19 Nov 2015: WikiLeaks says "we believe it would be much better for GOP to win." Calls Clinton a "well connected, sadistic sociopath." (Source: copy of DMs - via The Intercept. Note: I personally verified the authenticity of these DMs.)

Publicly, 26 Aug 2016: Assange appears on Fox & Friends and says "We do have some information about the Republican campaign" but suggests he won't publish it because "it’s actually hard for us to publish much more controversial material than what comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth every second day." (The material is never disclosed.)

Privately, 20 Sept 2016: WikiLeaks sends Donald J Trump Jr a password to an anti-Trump website which it claims to have "guessed." (Source: Twitter DMs - copies released by Donald J Trump Jr.)

Privately, 3 Oct 2016: WikiLeaks asks Donald J Trump Jr to "push" a dubiously sourced story from a conservative website called "True Pundit" alleging Hillary Clinton wanted to kill Assange with a drone. (Source: Twitter DMs - copies released by Donald J Trump Jr.)

Publicly, 7 Oct 2016: The Washington Post, at about 4pm US Eastern Time, publishes a now infamous video recording in which Donald Trump can be heard boasting about grabbing women's genitals. Within an hour, WikiLeaks publishes an email leak from Hillary Clinton's campaign chair, John Podesta. (Source: Politifact.)

Privately, 21 Oct 2016: WikiLeaks asks Trump Jr to let it publish copies of his father Donald Trump's tax returns because it says doing so would "dramatically improve the perception of our impartiality" & get "much higher impact" for "the vast amount of stuff that we are publishing about Clinton." (Source: Twitter DMs - copies released by Donald J Trump Jr.)

Privately, 8 Nov 2016 (day of the election, before results announced): WikiLeaks advises Donald J Trump Jr that Donald Trump shouldn't concede the election if he loses & instead should blame "rigging" and "media corruption" to "keep his base alive." (Source: Twitter DMs - copies released by Donald J Trump Jr.)

Publicly, 10 Nov 2016 (after Trump election victory announced): WikiLeaks claims in a Reddit AMA that "allegations that we have colluded with Trump, or any other candidate for that matter...are just groundless and false." (Source: Reddit.)

Publicly, 10 Nov 2016: WikiLeaks claims in a Reddit AMA that "we were not publishing with a goal to get any specific candidate elected." Claims it did not "editorially back one candidate over another." (Source: Reddit.)

Publicly, 10 Nov 2016: WikiLeaks says in a Reddit AMA that it has "not received information on Donald Trump’s campaign." (Three months earlier, on 26 Aug 2016, Assange said "We do have some information about the Republican campaign" - see above.) (Source: Reddit.)

Privately, 16 Dec 2016: WikiLeaks asks Donald J Trump Jr to get Donald Trump to pressure Australia to "appoint Assange ambassador to DC" because he is a "really smart tough guy." (Source: Twitter DMs - copies released by Donald J Trump Jr.)

Publicly, 14 Jan 2017: WikiLeaks denies Assange is trying to endear himself to Trump, claims it's just "using Trump aligned media to amplify its publications and critiques of secrecy and war." (Source: Twitter.)


(The Donald J Trump Jr private messages were first disclosed in Nov 2017; the original source material can be found in three parts, here, here, and here. The other referenced private messages were first disclosed in Feb 2018 by my colleagues at The Intercept - the full archive of 11,000 private messages were released this week by activist Emma Best and can be found here. This is only a partial analysis; it is not comprehensive. There's a lot more information out there. I may add to this timeline once I have reviewed other material.)

Home Office vs. WhatsApp Encryption

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Last month, the British government's home secretary Amber Rudd launched a crusade against the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp. Because WhatsApp was reportedly used by Khalid Masood – the man responsible for the Westminster terror attack – Rudd suggested that she would like encryption to be banned, saying that “a secret place for terrorists to communicate” could not be permitted.

For several years the government has been pushing a similar line, arguing that there can be no “safe space” allowed for terrorists to communicate. The position is controversial because the real outcome of such a policy would mean no “safe space” for anyone to communicate; terrorists are not the only people who use WhatsApp. The service has more than a billion users, the majority of whom are ordinary citizens who just want to be able to chat privately and securely with friends and family.

Rudd's statement cast a shadow of blame over WhatsApp for Masood's atrocity. But because he was not under surveillance at the time of his attack, and is believed to have acted alone, even if WhatsApp were not encrypted it is unlikely that the security services would have been in a position to prevent his rampage. And it was not the case that his communications were entirely beyond the reach of the police, as Rudd implied they were. Investigators were reportedly able to recover WhatsApp messages from his phone in the aftermath of the incident.

These facts did not stop Rudd's posturing, however. She used the incident as an opportunity to call a meeting in the Home Office with what she described as a “fairly long list” of technology companies. Among those invited were internet giants Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Facebook, whose policy officials published a joint letter after the gathering pledging a commitment to do more to remove terrorist propaganda from their services. But who else attended the meeting is a mystery. Curiously, the Home Office's security and counter-terrorism department is refusing to release the details, and told me last week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that the names have to stay secret on national security grounds:

Disclosure of the information in scope of your request would reveal those organsistions [sic] that are working with the Home Office to combat terrorism especially in the online space. By releasing the names, we are informing the public which sites host the most content and therefore potentially providing information that could make it easier for those searching for this material to locate it on the internet. This would serve to undermine the Prevent Strategy, and hence weaken and prejudice the national security of the UK. There is a serious terrorist threat to the United Kingdom and disclosure of the information requested could put national security at risk by jeopardising or negating the Government’s efforts to prevent acts of terrorism and terrorist related crime.

It added that information is also subject to commercial confidentiality agreements:

Releasing the information about individuals provided in confidence would breach confidential commercial relationships with the Home Office and could result in breach of confidence action against the Home Office. It would also damage our standing in dealing with individuals who would not have confidence to engage with us in future, and may decide to take action against us.

Both of these claims are perplexing. First of all, it is hard to understand how merely naming a technology company could somehow increase the terror threat or encourage people to seek out terrorism-related content that is hosted by it. Any disturbed individual who is looking for a bomb-making manual or Islamic State propaganda magazine can find it with a few cursory Google searches if they so wish. That is the nature of the internet. The Home Office will not make the problem any better or worse by disclosing the names of technology companies it is meeting with.

The second point, on confidentiality, is equally tenuous. Companies that the government has “commercial relationships” with are paid for by the taxpayer. Therefore, there is no good reason why the details of the contract should not be disclosed. Quite the contrary, there is good reason that the contract should be disclosed, as taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent. In this instance I was not even seeking specific contractual details – I was merely asking for a list of companies that attended a meeting. But this was deemed unacceptable to the Home Office, which like many other British government departments is obsessed with secrecy and routinely refuses to release even the most banal information just because it can.

Notably, one thing the Home Office did acknowledge in its response to me was that “the meeting did not cover encryption” and instead “focused on the issue of online terrorist content.” So after the stink Amber Rudd made about banning “secret places” and cracking down on WhatsApp, for the time being she seems to have backed down on the issue.

I am appealing the decision to withhold the company names – and will update here when I have more news on the case.

UK Police Spying Expert Heading Probe into Snowden Leak Journalists

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Back in July, London's Metropolitan Police admitted that it was still conducting a criminal investigation it launched two years ago into journalists who have reported on Edward Snowden's leaked documents.

Since then, I have been trying to find out more details about the investigation through the Freedom of Information Act. The Met is refusing to disclose virtually anything about the probe, but recently it did provide me with one new detail:
Specialist Operations under the direction of AC Mark Rowley is the MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] unit involved in the investigation related to the Snowden documents.
Rowley (pictured below) has taken over the Snowden investigation from Cressida Dick, the Met's former head of Specialist Operations, who quit the force in December last year to take up a secret new job at the Foreign Office. The Met confirmed this in an emailed letter it sent me late last month (I'd have written about it sooner but have been a bit swamped with other projects).

Rowley is an expert in covert surveillance methods and pioneered the development of new police spying techniques across the UK while working as a detective superintendent in the 1990s with the National Criminal Intelligence Service. Notably, he recently made clear he has no qualms about monitoring journalists' communications if he deems it necessary to “chase down criminals." He has also boasted about the London police being at the “cutting edge” of covert surveillance through the use of “specialist hardware and software.” (These specialist tools include powerful portable spying devices the Met uses to monitor mobile phone communications across targeted areas of London, as I reported back in 2011.)

The Met first announced it had launched an investigation related to the Snowden documents in August 2013, saying the criminal probe was being headed by its Counter Terrorism Command, which is a division of the Specialist Operations department. In December 2013, Rowley's predecessor Cressida Dick acknowledged during a parliamentary hearing that the investigation was looking at whether reporters at The Guardian had committed criminal offenses for their role in revealing secret surveillance operations exposed in the Snowden documents.

For almost seven months earlier this year, the Met refused to confirm or deny whether the investigation remained ongoing, repeatedly claiming doing so would be “detrimental to national security.” But the force performed a sudden volte-face on its position in late July following an intervention from the Information Commissioner’s Office, the public body that enforces the UK’s freedom of information laws.

I'm currently seeking more information about the investigation, such as details about how much money it has cost the taxpayer to date and the names of outside agencies or contractors that have assisted. The Met has so far refused to release this information — again spuriously claiming that doing so could somehow jeopardise national security — but I have lodged an appeal in an effort to have this decision reversed. Will post updates as and when I have them.