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.

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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?

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