Activists Ask Google: What’s Changed Since 2010?

A backlash has mounted in recent weeks following leaked news that Google has been preparing search censorship mechanisms for a possible return to China. On Monday, a group of prominent rights organizations and activists asked the CEO Sundar Pichai for assurances and transparency regarding the company’s plans, highlighting concerns about of search results and vulnerability of sensitive user data.

Dear Mr Pichai,

Like many of ’s own employees, we are extremely concerned by reports that is developing a new censored search engine app for the Chinese market. The project, codenamed “Dragonfly”, would represent an alarming capitulation by on human rights. The Chinese government extensively violates the rights to freedom of expression and privacy; by accommodating the Chinese authorities’ repression of dissent, would be actively participating in those violations for millions of internet users in China.

We support the brave efforts of Google employees who have alerted the public to the existence of Dragonfly, and voiced their concerns about the project and Google’s transparency and oversight processes.

In contrast, company leadership has failed to respond publicly to concerns over Project Dragonfly, stating that it does not comment on “speculation about future plans”. Executives have also refused to answer basic questions about how the company will safeguard the rights of users in China as it seeks to expand its business in the country.

Since Google publicly exited the search market in China in 2010, citing restrictions to freedom of expression online, the Chinese government has strengthened its controls over the internet and intensified its crackdown on freedom of expression. We are therefore calling on Google to:

• Reaffirm the company’s 2010 commitment not to provide censored search engine services in China;
• Disclose its position on censorship in China and what steps, if any, Google is taking to safeguard against human rights violations linked to Project Dragonfly and its other Chinese mobile app offerings;
• Guarantee protections for whistle-blowers and other employees speaking out where they see the company is failing its commitments to human rights.

Our concerns about Dragonfly are set out in detail below.

[…] According to confidential Google documents obtained by The Intercept, the new search app being developed under Project Dragonfly would comply with China’s draconian rules by automatically identifying and filtering websites blocked in China, and “blacklisting sensitive queries”. Offering services through mobile phone apps, including Google’s existing Chinese apps, raises additional concerns because apps enable access to extraordinarily sensitive data. Given the Cybersecurity Law’s data localization and other requirements, it is likely that the company would be enlisted in surveillance abuses and their users’ data would be much more vulnerable to government access. [Source]

The letter is signed by Access Now; Amnesty International; Article 19; the Center for Democracy and Technology; the Committee to Protect Journalists; the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Human Rights in China; Human Rights Watch; the Independent Chinese PEN Centre; the International Service for Human Rights; PEN International; Privacy International; Reporters Without Borders; and WITNESS. There are four additional individual signatories: CDT founder Xiao Qiang, Citizen Lab founder Ronald Deibert, former China correspondent and Ranking Digital Rights founder Rebecca MacKinnon, and former head of free expression for Asia and the Pacific at Google Lokman Tsui.

One of the letter’s requests is for Pichai to explain what has changed to account for the reversal of Google’s decision in 2010 that “we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn.” U.S.-based activist Chen Guangcheng expressed bewilderment over this shift in an op-ed at The Washington Post:

Back in 2010, Google grandly announced that it was leaving China’s vast consumer market, citing its hallowed principle of “do no evil.” The company said that it had decided to choose user privacy over profits rather than collaborate with the Communist Party regime in the surveillance of Chinese citizens. I was in prison when I heard this unfolding news, having myself been tracked, traced, spied on and kidnapped, and later tried on bogus charges and sentenced to more than four years in prison for my human rights work. In prison I labored secretly for months to secure a forbidden shortwave radio, which I kept hidden in a used milk carton. I listened to programs like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia at night while wrapped under my quilt, the speaker pressed close to my ear at the lowest possible volume. Having had my freedom denied me by the Chinese Communist Party, the news of this upstart tech company risking lost revenue to do the right thing gave me real hope.

[…] And then came news about Google’s work on a censored search engine (code-named “Dragonfly”). After my initial shock wore off, I found myself wondering what had occurred to cause the company to shed its defining principle in such a blatant fashion. Does Google really want to become a tool of the dictatorial communist regime? What about the millions of disappointed Chinese fans? Without their support, and without the company’s moral bearings, how would Google survive in China? Google — and all — should remember: The vessel containing a dictatorship’s desire is boundless, never filled, never satisfied. You give an inch, and they will take a mile in irrational demands. [Source]

Steven Levy described the reasoning behind Google’s accommodation of Chinese censorship in 2006, and its subsequent reversal, in his 2011 book on Google, "Into The Plex." The initial decision, he wrote, was premised on "an article of faith in Silicon Valley—and some quarters of Washington, D.C.—that China’s adoption of the digital advances of the twenty-first century would inevitably erode those controls." The swing vote, between SEO Eric Schmidt’s enthusiasm for entry to China and co-founder Sergey Brin’s Soviet-bred wariness, was cofounder Larry Page, "a natural optimist when it came to the potential of technology to transform society, [who] believed that Google’s entry would be a boon to China."

According to Levy, "Google had originally hoped that the Chinese [government] would appreciate its compromise and tacitly tolerate Google’s quiet pressure to relax the filtering. Instead it was the opposite." Early optimism was gradually eroded by steadily more onerous and far-reaching censorship demands, suspicions of an "artificial ceiling" on Google’s market share and apparent collusion between Chinese authorities and Baidu, and finally the shock of a major state-sponsored hack of Google’s systems and targeted user accounts. Google executive David Drummond told Levy that by late 2009, "the environment was getting more difficult and closed, not more open as we had hoped. […] It was all about the Chinese government’s desire to lock down cyberspace. And there was a growing fatigue with how we could deal with it."

The trend of steadily greater control has only accelerated since, with escalating monitoring and restriction of online activities, the taming of social media, establishment of the national Cyberspace Administration, passage of a far-reaching cybersecurity law, and more. In a column last week, The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo wrote that far from vindicating the decision to leave China, this escalation and its reflections elsewhere may have fueled the plans for re-entry:

[…] The internet has changed a great deal since 2010, and the company’s executives have increasingly come to see their decision to leave China as rash, naïve and ultimately counterproductive.

[…] Since then, China’s rules have only hardened, while a host of other governments have stepped up efforts to police speech online.

Now even many democratic governments are adopting stringent curbs on online speech. For instance, in Europe, a “right to be forgotten” rule has forced Google and other to remove results that are judged to invade people’s privacy, and more rules governing hate speech and propaganda are in the works. Meanwhile, Edward Snowden’s leaks showed that the American and British governments have also hacked large internet companies, including Google.

[…] “I wrote a book where I warned that China is Exhibit A for how authoritarian governments adapt to the internet and then begin to change the internet,” Ms. MacKinnon said. “And if companies like Google are now throwing in the towel and saying, ‘Well, that’s where the internet is going’ and ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ — well, that’s deeply troubling.” [Source]

At The Globe Post, Georgia State University’s Maria Repnikova argued that the stakes for Google’s position on China have only grown, because "in contrast to eight years ago, the ethical decisions are now more globalized and will carry repercussions much beyond the Chinese market."

If we return to the perspectives of Chinese citizens, there are definite benefits to them from Google’s re-entry. It can provide an alternative to Baidu, the main Chinese search engine that monopolized the market. Baidu has been engulfed in a series of medical scandals recently that diminished public trust in the search engine that many already critique for its weak functionalities.

In 2016, it faced its biggest scandal yet: a young man died from a fake cancer treatment listed on Baidu. A poll on Weibo (China’s equivalent to Twitter) that has since been deleted, showed that the majority of respondents prefer Google over Baidu if Google were to become available.

[…] The key ethical concern about Google’s re-entry at this particular juncture is not about the company disempowering Chinese citizens, but about setting a new precedent for global tech operations across the authoritarian spectrum. In contrast to eight years ago, China is not just a giant autocracy we hope would democratize one day, it is now an aspirational model for many countries with authoritarian inklings, and is a more active player in geopolitics.

If Google provides a censored engine to China, why wouldn’t other authoritarian countries that are increasingly importing Chinese censorship and surveillance technology, like Vietnam or Zimbabwe, not demand it as well? Or at the very least, require Google to localize data and empower surveillance indirectly? [Source]

Underlining Manjoo’s and Repnikova’s points, Google came under pressure this week from U.S. President Donald Trump to alter the political content of its search results. The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin found this development uncomfortably resonant with the climate in China:

[… T]he main way Xi controls the Internet is by forcing companies who own and manage Internet platforms — both Chinese and foreign firms — to do the political bidding of the party. Companies that don’t comply face punishment dressed up as “regulation” as well as the scorn that comes with the party publicly accusing them of committing offenses against the Chinese people.

[…] Even Google itself has been secretly developing a censored search engine and compiling data for blacklists in an ill-conceived attempt to reenter the Chinese market. Trump could be forgiven for thinking that Google might bow to an authoritarian who threatens its business and reputation. [Source]

Gallagher, who first broke the story of Google’s plans to return to China at The Intercept, reported frustration in various quarters at Google’s refusal to answer questions like those above:

It is not only journalists, however, who Google has ignored in the wake of the revelations. Amnesty International researchers told The Intercept they set up a phone call with the company to discuss concerns about Dragonfly, but they were stonewalled by members of Google’s human rights policy team, who said they would not talk about “leaks” of information related to the Chinese censorship. The open letter slams Google’s lack of public engagement on the matter, stating that the company’s “refusal to respond substantively to concerns over its reported plans for a Chinese search service falls short of the company’s purported commitment to accountability and transparency.”

Google is a member of the Global Network Initiative, or GNI, a digital rights organization that works with a coalition of companies, human rights groups, and academics. All members of the GNI agree to implement a set of principles on freedom of expression and privacy, which appear to prohibit complicity in the sort of broad censorship that is widespread in China. The principles state that member companies must “respect and work to protect the freedom of expression rights of users” when they are confronted with government demands to “remove content or otherwise limit access to communications, ideas and information in a manner inconsistent with internationally recognized laws and standards.”

Following the revelations about Dragonfly, sources said, members of the GNI’s board of directors – which includes representatives from Human Rights Watch, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the Committee to Protect Journalists – confronted Google representatives in a conference call about its censorship plans. But the Google officials were not responsive to the board’s concerns or forthcoming with information about Dragonfly, which caused frustration and anger within the GNI. [Source]