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Googlers petition for transparency, ethical review of censored Chinese search engine

Internally, Google is known for fostering a very open work environment that places a great deal of trust on employees. That means Googlers can affect a great deal of change as evidenced by the company backing out of Project Maven. A new petition provides insight to the employee reaction against Dragonfly — a censored search engine for China — that many believe is contradictory to Google’s principles.

Earlier this month, Google was revealed to be working on a series of products for the Chinese market that abide by the country’s censorship regime. Codenamed “Dragonfly,” the marque effort is a search engine that would not allow users to find results related to democracy, human rights, dissent, and other topics deemed inappropriate by the government.

Google’s return is speculated to be driven by the business incentives of returning to a market with over one billion users. In response, Google’s employees have created a petition — acquired by Gizmodo and the New York Times — with several complaints, as well as a course of action.

Contradictory to Google’s open culture, many employees were left in the dark about Dragonfly. Many employees did not become aware until The Intercept’s report, while Buzzfeed reports that internal access to the project’s code and related documents were blocked.

In response, employees are asking for more transparency, starting with an oversight process where representatives for employees can participate in ethics reviews of projects like Dragonfly and Project Maven. Specifically, they want these controversies to be reviewed under the recently published AI Principles and serve as “ethical test cases.”

Some argue that Dragonfly does not follow the first principle of a product that is “socially beneficial.” Additionally, it goes against Google’s founding mission to make information “universally accessible and useful.”

As we consider potential development and uses of AI technologies, we will take into account a broad range of social and economic factors, and will proceed where we believe that the overall likely benefits substantially exceed the foreseeable risks and downsides.

Googlers are also calling for the appointment of an ombudspeople, which traditionally act as outside watchdogs in governments and newspaper.

Another reason employees don’t want to be kept in the dark about projects is that it prevents “individual ethical choice about what they work on.” Lastly, Googlers want “regular, official, internally visible communications and assessments regarding any new areas of substantial ethical concern.”

This effort comes after Google famously pulled out of China after it emerged that state-backed hackers broke into the Gmail accounts of human-rights activists. Led by co-founder Sergey Brin, Google in 2010 decided to stop self-censoring content on behalf of the government.

At the time, it was hailed by many as a principled stand, with that decision cited by the recent petition that now features over 1,400 signatories, according to Gizmodo:

Eight years ago, as Google pulled censored web search out of China, Sergey Brin explained the decision, saying: “in some aspects of [government] policy, particularly with respect to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see some earmarks of totalitarianism.” Dragonfly and Google’s return to China raise urgent moral and ethical issues, the substance of which we are discussing elsewhere.

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Avatar for Abner Li Abner Li

Editor-in-chief. Interested in the minutiae of Google and Alphabet. Tips/talk: