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Human rights groups ask Google to kill China search engine plans

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Sundar Pichai
Google CEO Sundar
Pichai.

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  • A group of 14 human rights organizations have written
    an open letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai demanding Google
    kill plans to create a censored search engine in
    China.
  • Codenamed “Dragonfly,” Google’s plans to create a
    search engine compatible with China’s stringent laws were
    revealed by the Intercept in early August.
  • The letter, signed by the likes of Human Rights Watch
    and Amnesty International, asks Google to clarify its position
    on censorship and put safeguards in place for
    whistleblowers.

A group of 14 human rights organizations, including Human Rights
Watch, Amnesty International, and PEN International, have

written an open letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai
demanding
he reverse plans to launch a censored search engine in China.

News broke in early August that
Google was planning to re-enter China after an eight-year
hiatus.
The Intercept obtained leaked documents showing that
firm is working on a new search service, codenamed “Dragonfly,”
and that Pichai met with a Chinese government official in
December 2017.

In their letter, the human rights groups said the plan would be
an “an alarming capitulation by Google on human rights,” as it
would mean accommodating “one of the world’s most repressive
internet censorship and surveillance regimes.”

The letter demands three things:

  • That Google kills plans for a censored Chinese search engine.
  • That the company clarifies its position on censorship in
    China and outlines any steps it is taking to “safeguard against
    human rights violations” linked to Dragonfly and its other
    Chinese mobile apps.
  • Finally, it asks that Google guarantees protections for any
    internal whistleblowers.


Google announced it was leaving the Chinese market in 2010

after it detected a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack,”
the primary goal of which was to infiltrate the Gmail accounts of
Chinese human rights activists.

“If Google’s position has indeed changed, then this must be
stated publicly, together with a clear explanation of how Google
considers it can square such a decision with its responsibilities
under international human rights standards and its own corporate
values,” the letter said.

It added that protections for whistleblowers are essential,
pointing out that Google staff were instrumental in raising
concerns about its involvement in military drone programme
“Project Maven.” The company has since set out ethical guidelines
on the use of AI and plans to withdraw from the
Pentagon project in 2019.

The letter concludes: “As it stands, Google risks becoming
complicit in the Chinese government’s repression of freedom of
speech and other human rights in China. Google should heed the
concerns raised by human rights groups and its own employees and
refrain from offering censored search services in China.”

Business Insider has contacted Google for comment.

Here’s the letter in full:

Dear Mr Pichai

(cc: Ben Gomes, Vice President of Search; Kent Walker, Senior
Vice President of Global Affairs)

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

Freedom of expression and privacy in China and Google’s
human rights commitments

It is difficult to see how Google would currently be able to
relaunch a search engine service in China in a way that would be
compatible with the company’s human rights responsibilities under
international standards, or its own commitments. Were it to do
so, in other words, there is a high risk that the company would
be directly contributing to, or complicit in, human rights
violations.

The Chinese government runs one of the world’s most repressive
internet censorship and surveillance regimes. Human rights
defenders and journalists are routinely arrested and imprisoned
solely for expressing their views online. Under the Cybersecurity
Law,[1] internet companies operating in China are obliged to
censor users’ content in a way that runs counter to international
obligations to safeguard the rights of access to information,
freedom of expression and privacy. Thousands of websites and
social media services in the country remain blocked, and many
phrases deemed to be politically sensitive are censored.[2]
Chinese law also requires companies to store Chinese users’ data
within the country and facilitate surveillance by abusive
security agencies.

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.

Google has a responsibility to respect human rights that exists
independently of a state’s ability or willingness to fulfil its
own human rights obligations.[3] The company’s own Code of
Conduct promises to advance users’ rights to privacy and freedom
of expression globally. In Google’s AI Principles, published in
June, the company pledged not to build “technologies whose
purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international
law and human rights”. The company also commits, through the
Global Network Initiative, to conduct human rights due diligence
when entering markets or developing new services. Project
Dragonfly raises significant, unanswered questions about whether
Google is meeting these commitments.

Transparency and human rights due diligence

Google’s refusal to respond substantively to concerns over its
reported plans for a Chinese search service falls short of the
company’s commitment to accountability and transparency.[4]

In 2010, the human rights community welcomed Google’s
announcement that it had “decided we are no longer willing to
continue censoring our results on Google.cn”, citing
cyber-attacks against the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights
activists and attempts by the Chinese government to “further
limit free speech on the web”.

If Google’s position has indeed changed, then this must be stated
publicly, together with a clear explanation of how Google
considers it can square such a decision with its responsibilities
under international human rights standards and its own corporate
values. Without these clarifications, it is difficult not to
conclude that Google is now willing to compromise its principles
to gain access to the Chinese market.

There also appears to be a broader lack of transparency around
due diligence processes at Google. In order to “know and show”
that they respect human rights, companies are required under
international standards to take steps to identify, prevent and
mitigate against adverse impacts linked to their products – and
communicate these efforts to key stakeholders and the public.[5]
The letter from Google employees published on 16 August 2018
demonstrates that some employees do not feel Google’s processes
for implementing its AI Principles and ethical commitments are
sufficiently meaningful and transparent.[6]

Protection of whistle-blowers

Google has stated that it cannot respond to questions about
Project Dragonfly because reports about the project are based on
“leaks”.[7] However, the fact that the information has been
publicly disclosed by employees does not lessen its relevance and
rights impact.

In relation both to Project Dragonfly and to Google’s involvement
in the US government’s drone programme, Project Maven,
whistle-blowers have been crucial in bringing ethical concerns
over Google’s operations to public attention. The protection of
whistle-blowers who disclose information that is clearly in the
public interest is grounded in the rights to freedom of
expression and access to information.[8] The OECD Guidelines for
Multinational Enterprises recommend that companies put in place
“safeguards to protect bona fide whistle-blowing activities”.[9]

We are calling on Google to publicly commit to protect
whistle-blowers in the company and to take immediate steps to
address the concerns employees have raised about Project
Dragonfly.

As it stands, Google risks becoming complicit in the Chinese
government’s repression of freedom of speech and other human
rights in China. Google should heed the concerns raised by human
rights groups and its own employees and refrain from offering
censored search services in China.

Signed, the following organizations:

Access Now
Amnesty International
Article 19
Center for Democracy and Technology
Committee to Protect Journalists
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Human Rights in China
Human Rights Watch
Independent Chinese PEN Centre
International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
PEN International
Privacy International
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
WITNESS

Signed in individual capacity (affiliations for
identification purposes only):

Ronald Deibert
Professor of Political Science and Director of the Citizen
Lab
University of Toronto

Rebecca MacKinnon
Director, Ranking Digital Rights

Xiao Qiang
Research Scientist
Founder and Director of the Counter-Power Lab
School of Information, University of California at Berkeley

Lokman Tsui
Assistant Professor at the School of Journalism and
Communication
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

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