Leadership of Google's Dragonfly Project

Thursday 13 December 2018

Earlier this week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai made his first ever appearance in US Congress and faced criticism from lawmakers over the company's plan to launch as censored search engine in China. Pichai was evasive on several questions about the project, known as Dragonfly, and declined to answer when probed on the leadership personnel at the company involved in it.

While working on a series of stories about the search engine over the last few months, I pieced together a chart to map out the organisational structure of Dragonfly, which I am publishing here today to shine light on the key players behind the plan. The chart is a work in progress; it's not comprehensive and it is not based on any official Google documents. It is based on reliable information that multiple well-placed sources have shared with me.

In total, only approximately 300 Google employees -- 0.35% of the company's 88,000 total staff -- have worked on the censored search engine, which was designed to blacklist broad categories of information about human rights, democracy, and peaceful protest. The search platform would also link Chinese users’ search records to their cellphone numbers and share people’s search histories with a Chinese partner company — meaning that Chinese security agencies, which routinely target activists and critics, could obtain the data.

As I reported in late November, the secrecy that surrounded the China plan was unprecedented inside the company. The top executives at the internet giant went to extraordinary lengths to keep the project under wraps. But who are those executives and what are their roles within the company?

Board of directors
It is still unclear to me how much the directors -- with the exception of CEO Sundar Pichai -- knew about Dragonfly and when. The project has been underway inside Google since 2016, but co-founder Sergey Brin claimed that he knew nothing about it until we exposed the plan at The Intercept in August. Brin has in the past taken a strong anti-censorship stance, and Google sources have suggested to me that some executives (see Scott Beaumont, below) may have deliberately withheld information from him about Dragonfly. I know for sure that other members of the board were looped in on Google's general work in China (such as projects to push out a translate app for the Chinese market, and a $550 million investment in the online Chinese retailer JD.com). But the extent of their knowledge on Dragonfly, and how much of it they signed off on -- I am still trying to establish that.

Sundar Pichai, CEO:
Pichai took over at the helm of Google in 2015 and one of the items at the top of his agenda was -- and still is -- getting back into China. He publicly declared in 2016: "We want to be in China serving Chinese users.” Following the Dragonfly revelations, Pichai has faced a torrent of criticism over the censored search engine. He has defended the plan while making a series of misleading statements about how advanced the project was inside the company. Pichai appears to have delegated authority to Scott Beaumont, Google's chief in China, to manage the project.

Scott Beaumont, vice president of Google, Greater China & Korea
Beaumont is a British citizen who began his career working for an investment bank in England. He joined Google in 2009, working from London as director of the company’s partnerships in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. In 2013, Beaumont relocated to China to head Google’s operations there. He is a leading force inside the company directing the Dragonfly project, viewing it as an integral step for the growth of the company and liaising directly with CEO Sundar Pichai on the progress of the plan. Beaumont's handling of Dragonfly has caused internal friction -- Yonatan Zunger, who was until last year one of Google's leading engineers, told me Beaumont did not take seriously human rights concerns that were repeatedly raised internally about the censored search engine. Beaumont “wanted the privacy review [of Dragonfly] to be pro forma and thought it should defer entirely to his views of what the product ought to be," said Zunger. "He did not feel that the security, privacy, and legal teams should be able to question his product decisions, and maintained an openly adversarial relationship with them — quite outside the Google norm.”

Kent Walker, senior vice president of global affairs
Walker oversees Google's policy, legal, trust and safety, and corporate philanthropy teams, and formely served as the company's general counsel. His day-to-day involvement in Dragonfly appears to have been fairly limited, but he has been involved in a number of high-level meetings about the project and its policy and legal status with other top executives, including Pichai and Beaumont. Following the public exposure of Dragonfly, Walker helped handle the backlash that ensued. In October, he wrote a letter to human rights groups defending Google's mission to provide "access to information to people around the world," while claiming the company remains committed to "protecting the rights to freedom of expression and privacy for our users globally."

Caesar Sengupta, vice president, Next Billion Users Team
Sengupta leads Google's effort to "engage the next billion internet users," and has had a leadership role on the Dragonfly project, collaborating closely with Scott Beaumont. One source who worked on Dragonfly told me: "Scott tends to treat Caesar like a lackey. Scott definitely considers himself in charge and Caesar is there to do his bidding." In November, after I reported that Google's privacy and security teams had been shut out of key meetings on Dragonfly and had felt sidelined by Beaumont, Sengupta claimed on Twitter that there was "no sidelining of privacy and security" and described Beaumont glowingly as "a person of very high integrity." Sengupta stated that he had experience "working on Dragonfly", but did not mention that he had a leading role on the project.

Andrew Bowers, senior director, project management
Bowers began his career at Google in 2006 as a marketing manager, based out of California. In 2016, he relocated to China as the company began to ramp up its operations in the country. His remit is to "reintroduce Google as a brand" to people in China, doing so through various products, such as a translate app and a WeChat game designed specifically for the Chinese market. Working out of Google offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing, Bowers is a key player on the Dragonfly project. He has helped manage the day-to-day operations of Dragonfly and has helped to develop strategy for the launch.

Ben Gomes, head of search
Gomes joined Google in 1999 and is one of the key engineers behind the company’s search engine. He took over the role as Google's head of search in April this year, succeeding John Giannandrea in that role. Giannandrea had helped develop the Dragonfly project before he left Google to take up a new job with Apple. Gomes inherited the blueprint for Dragonfly that Giannandrea had worked on. In July, Gomes told staff in a private meeting that the censored search engine project was "extremely important to the company," and said he hoped it could be launched between January and April 2019 or sooner. “We have to be focused on what we want to enable,” Gomes said. “And then when the opening happens, we are ready for it.”

Product managers
Have been looking at studies profiling the kinds of people that might use Google search in China.

Ranking teams
Working to finely tune the quality of the search results on the censored search engine.

One Box teams
These teams have been localising Google's search results to China, so that when people perform searches for certain phrases they will receive, for example, a separate box displaying information about weather, sports results, or news (see examples of 'one box' results here). Notably, sources have said that the weather results -- specifically, air quality data -- will be provided from a source in Beijing, meaning it could be distorted to downplay toxins in the air. (The Chinese government has a track record of manipulating air quality data.) News results will also be heavily censored and they will not include content from many western outlets -- for example, the BBC, New York Times, or Wall Street Journal.

Infrastructure teams
Developing the systems that will run the search engine, host and process the data.

User experience teams
Studying Chinese people's search behaviour and looking at how they might use Google.

Security, privacy, legal teams
Fairly self explanatory: these teams have focused on security, privacy, and legal issues around Dragonfly. But their work has not been straightforward, and sources said their efforts to carry out reviews of the censored search engine was hindered by Scott Beaumont, who handled the project in a "highly unusual" way and opposed the privacy review process (you can read more details on that here).

Developing the mobile apps for the censored search engine. There are two versions, named Longfei and Maotai. Sources say Google is working on designing the app for both Android and iOS devices.

Ads, Geo, and Identity
Teams working on advertising, Google maps, and identity, respectively. The identity team focuses on user sign-in and authentication issues. The Dragonfly search app will force people in China to log in to perform searches and will link their search records to their mobile phone number.


If you know more about the leadership structure of Dragonfly, you can contact me securely using one of the methods detailed on this page.