The past couple of years has seen Google, the tech giant once revered for its altruistic and humanistic intentions not to mention its legendary employee perks, weather one controversy after another. Between reports from highly disgruntled former employees and a slew of sexual misconduct allegations, it seems like Google had seen the worst.
And then came Dragonfly.
What is Project Dragonfly?
Project Dragonfly is a search engine program built by Google and designed for the Chinese market. Specifically, it’s a customized search engine that can purportedly be used for government surveillance, censorship, population tracking, redirecting to disinformation sites, and a bunch of other Big Brother-esque features.
Building an app with features like that is scary enough, imagine handing it over to a country with a long record of, well, doing exactly what that app does, only in real time. Project Dragonfly is basically just providing China’s paranoid government with a high-tech tool for oppression.
Some of the alleged features in Dragonfly include things like keyword blocking and linking user searches with their social media profiles and phone numbers. These rumors were enough to disgust some senior ranking Google officials, like former research scientist Jack Poulson, who resigned in protest, and Google Open Research Lead Meredith Whittaker, who is one of the signatories of a scathing open letter to the corporation.
To add to this moral kerfuffle, Google is showing two things: first, it is showing everyone that they no longer put “values over profit”, as some employees have put it. Not only that, by continuing development on Dragonfly, Google is also showing that, despite its calls for a free internet, it’s more than willing to bend over backwards for governments that want to censor their people.
In my opinion, the launching of Dragonfly would set an absolutely dangerous precedent, one that would put Google in the same category as other soulless organizations, like Goldman Sachs, or H.Y.D.R.A. It’s also worth noting that, despite these protests, Google still hasn’t said much about the project, providing people with canned answers from corporate mouthpieces like “our work [in China] is exploratory”, or my favorite, “We’ve been investing for many years to help Chinese users”, which is a great way of deflecting the issue with empty platitudes.
Already, Google employees from all over the word are publicly protesting the company’s misaligned project, with protestors from Berlin calling for Google to not be “a brick in the Chinese Firewall”. But the thing about Dragonfly is, it’s not just a brick: it’s a sophisticated machine that could potentially allow a government famous for censorship and human rights abuses to extend its reach into her population even further.
Google engineers and developers are constantly pushing the search engine giant to, not only reconsider its position, but to completely reverse it: destroy all traces of Dragonfly and never work with that government again. But that alone has hit its own firewall: in an open letter published on Medium, many of these protestors accused the Google leadership of completely ignoring employee complaints. And indeed, Google’s inaction regarding the acknowledgement of these complaints have been sorely lacking.
Many argue, and I find myself agreeing 100%, that if Dragonfly pushes through, Google would be aiding and abetting human rights abuses and would be complicit in any crime committed via the Dragonfly search engine. While some supporters of Dragonfly might call this a slippery slope, consider this: the Chinese government REQUIRES all internet service providers and websites to provide them with complete access to user data. This is not just a suggestion, it’s the law.
Now, imagine handing over all that data to a government that has repeatedly tried (and, in most cases, succeeded) to silence and suppress dissidents, and it becomes clear that Dragonfly would be a disastrous step towards complete authoritarianism.
Some might say, “but those are dangerous dissidents, I’m sure!”, and you might be right: some dissidents ARE dangerous, but also take into account that China considers THESE groups as “dangerous”:
- Ethnic Uyghurs (Muslim Chinese who are fighting for the right to practice their religion freely)
- Women’s rights activists
- The Dalai Lama
Yes, I’m sure the Dalai Lama is in danger of creating mass destruction with a weaponized Tibetan horn of some kind.
A History of Hypocrisy?
Many Google employees, both former and current, say that Google’s actions are gross, but not new: in the past few years, thousands of the tech giant’s employees protested how the company handled allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault, with the main complaint being Google didn’t really handle it.
It took a global effort and numerous rallies and protests for Google to even just acknowledge the sexual allegations, and it took even more rallies and protests for them to do something. Google’s initial reaction to the allegations was to quietly let go the male executives accused of sexual misconduct, but not before providing them with millions of dollars in “exit packages”. Eventually, Google CEO Sundar Pichai was forced to issue a public apology and an assurance that no exit packages will be given to employees found guilty of sexual misconduct, and to their credit, they kept their word: 48 employees were fired over the last 2 years because of sexual harassment cases.
But the damage had been done. With Google’s mismanagement of sexual misconduct allegations, and this whole Dragonfly issue, it’s no wonder that employee satisfaction is at an all-time low.
Working with governments to help build weapons of physical and ideological war are not new for Google. Remember Project Maven, that US military-led AI program that was aimed at using machine learning to analyze drone footage?
Google initially tried to wash its hands of the implications of creating a program that would help the US government wage war by asserting that no Google program would be used to participate in drone warfare, the tech giant still provided key tools and expertise in helping the military perfect its drone technology. However, when Google employees found out about the company’s involvement, the backlash was fierce and immediate. Many employees, and again I find myself agreeing 100%, believed that any use of AI, whether passive or active, in helping governments create weapons of war is completely and utterly unethical. Open letters were signed, protests were planned, but in the end, Google leadership decided to discontinue their involvement with Maven. Starting next year.
What Google Needs
Google’s continued involvement with shady government projects has left huge, glaring scars on its once-sterling reputation. Indeed, with the way things are going, it seems like the corporation has lost sight of its original motto, “Don’t Be Evil”.
The best way to correct this? Stop Dragonfly. Pull out of Maven. And shun all attempts by governments, both foreign and domestic, to perpetuate control over the internet and proliferate war. Easier said than done, I’m sure, as these government contracts are potentially worth billions upon billions of dollars. But I think it wouldn’t hurt to hold Google to its new motto, updated after the Maven issue: Do What is Right.