Google Dragonfly was a secret search engine in development for China that was terminated in July 2019 . It 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. There was a lot of concern directed towards this project from human rights advocates as well as internal Google employees.
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 “they could make a more positive contribution in China by maintaining operations. They also stated that providing some results rather than none fit better with their company's mission.” Google China later shut down on March 22, 2010 due to censorship disputes.
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.” 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 internal Dragonfly engineers in December 2018 indicating a halt in development of the project, a group of Google employees discovered ongoing 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 not doing so would imply a failure to human rights, advocates of such rights, and to its own employees. Google did not respond to this.
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 the Chinese government’s use of surveillance and advanced technologies monitor and track certain groups such as Uyghurs, womens’ rights activists, and students, making 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.
- Google terminates Dragonfly https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeanbaptiste/2019/07/19/confirmed-google-terminated-project-dragonfly-its-censored-chinese-search-engine/#28b4d6527e84
- 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