Google Dragonfly was a secret search engine in development for China that was terminated in July 2019 . It was the second iteration of a Chinese version of Google after the first shut down in 2010. The search engine was designed to link users to their mobile phone numbers as a way to allow for easy identification of individuals and their queries by the Chinese government. It was developed as a search application for Android and would have allowed for censorship of content that the Communist Party considered insensitive. The response to this project was mixed, with both criticism and support directed towards this project from human rights advocates as well as internal Google employees.
History in China
Google has had previous history with China in regards to censorship. In 2006, Google decided to censor search results for Google China, a decision justified by the reasoning that "while removing search results in inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission" . This iteration of the search engine, while censored, alerted users if their search queries yielded censored results. Through this, users could guess as to what the government did not want them to see. From Google's perspective, the best option was to provide some sort of search service to the Chinese user base, even if that option included censorship. Google CEO Sundar Pichai stated that the search engine would be able to answer “well over 99% of the queries” put to it and that “there are many, many areas where we would provide information better than what’s available" . Google China later shut down on March 22, 2010 due to a series of Chinese cyber attacks. Google charged that Chinese hackers had hacked Google and other western companies, compromising the information and email accounts of Chinese dissident expats. These attacks caused political controversy in Washington, and three months later, Google China shut down. Chinese users were rerouted to the uncensored Hong Kong version of the search engine .
Google has since invested in many applications for a Chinese user base, including Android, Google Translate, and various developer tools. The Chinese market has a massive number of potential users, estimated at 802 million which is more than double the amount of users in the United States and United Kingdom combined .
Dragonfly was developed as a joint venture with a company in China. Both would have the authority to modify query blacklists. Google was found to have compiled a blacklist containing the terms “human rights,” “student protest,” and “Nobel Prize.” The Chinese government routinely engages in censorship through such blacklists. They ban certain words or concepts from appearing in any medium of Chinese media. For example, when President Xi Jin Ping was compared to Winnie the Pooh in appearance, the phrase Winnie the Pooh and all those related to it were added to the blacklist. These online activities can be tracked, and based on reports from the Intercept, Dragonfly was designed so that Chinese authorities would easily be able to see users’ records, which would have included information related to mobile numbers, search queries, and users’ locations . Legally, Google would have had no way to turn down authorities’ request for user data .
The development was largely kept in secret. After an internal message to Dragonfly engineers in December 2018 indicating a halt in development of the project, a group of Google employees discovered continuing work in the internal codebase . They identified more than 400 code changes between the months of January and February 2019. The normal code review process was also bypassed, which raised security and privacy concerns .
Over a thousand Google employees signed a letter raising concerns about the company’s censorship policies in China and its moral and ethical implications. In it, they also demanded more information and transparency regarding the direction of the project and its ethical consequences . The lack of transparency from Google executives led several employees to resign due to ethical concerns and the management of the project by leadership. The Intercept reported that six employees, consisting of two in senior level positions, had resigned, with three more planning on soon doing so. One of the employees expressed that “I just don’t know where the leadership is coming from anymore. They have really closed down communication and become significantly less transparent” .
Fourteen human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, also signed an open letter asking for more information and commitments to “safeguard against human rights violations" . A technology researcher at Amnesty International, Anna Bacciarelli, called for Google to publicly confirm the permanent shutdown of Dragonfly and pointed out that not doing so would imply a failure to human rights, advocates of such rights, and to its own employees.
In November 2018, Google employees published a Medium article joining Amnesty International’s call for Google to shut down Dragonfly . In it, they pointed out that the Chinese government’s use of surveillance and advanced technologies to monitor and track certain groups such as Uyghurs, womens’ rights activists, and students would make Google “complicit in oppression and human rights abuses.” They also stated that the search engine would facilitate censorship and disinformation by the Chinese government, promoting information that the government favors and silencing already marginalized groups in opposition with the regime. They referred to the company’s values and previous stance on censorship and called for Google to be held accountable.
Industry analysts also expressed concern about the possible intertwining relationship between Dragonfly and China's social credit system, which is a system being developed to assess the country's citizens and give them a score based on their social and economic activities. The implications of this system are limitations in economic freedom, as the score is affected by one's purchases, and freedom of speech, as one's score decreases if he or she paints the government in a negative light through online commentary . Patrick Poon, a researcher at Amnesty International, pointed out the significance of China's Cybersecurity Law, which demands that Internet companies "comply with many provisions, including censoring that is considered to 'endanger national security'... and reporting behaviors of posting such contents to the authorities."
Not long after the Medium letter was published, a number of Google employees signed a memo in favor of Dragonfly, stating that Dragonfly did indeed align with Google mission, which is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" . They pointed out that despite China's large user base, most of Google's services are not accessible by these users. This situation, they argued, was in stark contrast with the company's mission to connect people throughout the world with information.
Some Google employees expressed support for Dragonfly on the basis that China needs a better alternative. Baidu, China's main search engine, has nearly 70% of the market share in China's search engine market. One Google software engineer said that "I'm not just a Google employee. I'm also the future customer of the potential search engine Google is developing for China when I visit home. Baidu's technology and ethics are not very impressive. If Google could make a comeback in China, it could challenge Baidu's monopoly and I'll benefit as a consumer" . Some have pointed that, despite the censorship, a better search engine would help provide more accurate information. In 2016, Baidu drew heavy criticism when a 21 year old with a rare form of cancer died after receiving treatment from a hospital whose "claims to cure cancer were dishonest" and whose paid advertisement was promoted and returned as a search result by the search engine .
- Google terminates Dragonfly https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeanbaptiste/2019/07/19/confirmed-google-terminated-project-dragonfly-its-censored-chinese-search-engine/#28b4d6527e84
- Google China https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/01/tech/google-china-censorship/index.html
- Google CEO speaks out https://techcrunch.com/2018/10/16/google-ceo-sundar-pichai-speaks-publicly-for-the-first-time-about-its-censored-china-search-engine/
- Google wants to enter the Chinese market https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/sep/18/google-china-dragonfly-search-engine
- Google prototype allows for censorship and tracking https://theintercept.com/2018/09/14/google-china-prototype-links-searches-to-phone-numbers/
- Google employees discover ongoing work on Dragonfly https://theintercept.com/2019/03/04/google-ongoing-project-dragonfly/
- Google employees publish Medium article https://medium.com/@googlersagainstdragonfly/we-are-google-employees-google-must-drop-dragonfly-4c8a30c5e5eb
- Project Dragonfly and Anti-Democracy https://www.forbes.com/sites/julianvigo/2018/10/18/project-dragonfly-and-googles-threat-to-anti-democratic-processes/#1d6b26c37c47
- Dragonfly Support Letter https://techcrunch.com/2018/11/28/google-dragonfly-letter/
- Yahoo Finance Interview https://finance.yahoo.com/news/exclusive-3-chinese-google-employees-202114194.html
- Baidu China https://finance.yahoo.com/news/baidu-china-version-google-evil-102437854.html