In an open letter, published today on Medium, more than a hundred Google employees have urged the tech giant to halt the development of Project Dragonfly, a controversial plan to bring a censored version of its search engine to China.

Backed by Amnesty International, the letter condemns Dragonfly, warning that it is complicit in China’s efforts to “openly expanding its surveillance powers and tools of population control”.

But what is Dragonfly, and will it penetrate The Great Firewall of China?

The Great Firewall of China

The Great Firewall of China, the moniker given to the county’s restrictive internet model, is one of the most extreme examples of online censorship in the world. The authorities are able to block access to certain content, and also monitor individuals’ internet use, thanks to more than 60 regulations put in place by the Chinese government.

It forms part of the country’s efforts to protect its values and political ideas. Certain topics, including sex, free speech and anti-communist activity, as well as certain historical events such as the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, are blocked.

The rules also mean that western social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube are blocked, although many citizens use VPNs to bypass restrictions.

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China’s internet model has been widely criticised by human rights organisations as suppressing freedom of expression and being used to silence dissident voices.

What is Project Dragonfly?

Google launched a version of its search engine for China back in 2006, but in 2010 the company made the decision to shut down its site in the country, allegedly in protest of censorship laws. This means that currently, it is not possible to access Google in China without the use of a VPN.

With a population of 1.386 billion, China represents the biggest internet market in the world, a market that is currently out of reach for the largest search engine.

In 2016, Google CEO Sundar Pichai expressed intentions for the company to have a presence in the country once more, saying “Google is for everyone, we want to be in China serving Chinese users.”

In August, news site The Intercept reported that leaked documents showed that the company was working on a version of the search engine, under the codename Dragonfly.

The new app would reportedly allow citizens access to a version of Google, but sensitive searches related to topics like religion, democracy and human rights would be blacklisted. Under China’s internet laws, Google would also have to hand over access to user data, raising privacy concerns.

Although Google has no commented on the project, the reports have been met with widespread criticism from human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, which criticised the plans as being complicit in the Chinese government’s “manipulation of information”.

Today’s letter echoes this sentiment, warning that not only is Project Dragonfly enabling “censorship and government-directed disinformation”, but it could set a dangerous precedent for other nations wishing to adopt a similar internet model.

The letter urges Google to not only abandon Project Dragonfly, but also commit to “transparency, clear communication, and real accountability”.

This is not the first time the project has been criticised from those within Google, with hundreds of employees writing to the company in August to speak out against the plans, and many taking part in a protest organised by Amnesty International. However, this has been met with an “unsatisfactory” response from the company’s leadership.

Don’t be evil?

The company’s commitment to its previous motto, “don’t be evil”, quietly removed from its code of conduct in May this year, has been called into question recently, with widespread reports of the company misusing users’ personal data.

Last month, Google employees staged walkouts over allegations of workplace sexual harassment made against made against senior executives.

Another project, known as Project Maven, which provided artificial intelligence to the US Department of Defense was abandoned in June after 3000 employees signed a petition against the project over concerns that the technology could be used in drone strikes.

The letter concluded by casting doubt over the commitment to moral standards the company has been long known for:

“Many of us accepted employment at Google with the company’s values in mind, including its previous position on Chinese censorship and surveillance, and an understanding that Google was a company willing to place its values above its profits. After a year of disappointments including Project Maven, Dragonfly, and Google’s support for abusers, we no longer believe this is the case.”

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