Since word first got out about Google's Dragonfly project, a censored version of their search engine to acquiesce to China's internet filters, there has been a lot of concern, both externally and internally. The concern got worse when it was revealed that the company planned on connecting search history to users' phone numbers. The Chinese government has been known to imprison its citizens simply for searching about specific topics, such as democracy - something Google has previously assisted with.
Adding to the worries over Dragonfly, this week a 14-year veteran of the company, Yonatan Zunger, spoke about the corporate policies being ignored in the project. As the person in charge of implementing a privacy review of Dragonfly, Zunger said that Google executives, in particular, the head of operations in China Scott Beaumont, dismissed all of the privacy concerns raised by the review. He said,
(Beaumont) did not feel that the security, privacy and legal teams should be able to question his product decisions, and maintained an openly adversarial relationship with them -- quite outside the Google norm.
Google, on the other hand, claims that the issues being raised by Zunger are false.
This is an exploratory project and no decision has been made about whether we could or would launch. As we've explored the project, many privacy and security engineers have been consulted, as they always are. For any product, final launch is contingent on a full, final privacy review but we've never gotten to that point in development. Privacy reviews at Google are non-negotiable and we never short circuit the process.
All of this has not stopped employees from reacting to the project, however. With the revelation of phone number correlation, a number of employees left the company. Those who have stayed have voiced their concerns, some loudly. A few dozen employees wrote a public letter to the company requesting that they drop Dragonfly entirely. In the letter, the employees say,
Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be. The Chinese government certainly isn't alone in its readiness to stifle freedom of expression, and to use surveillance to repress dissent. Dragonfly in China would establish a dangerous precedent at a volatile political moment, one that would make it harder for Google to deny other countries similar concessions.
As more governments are trying to censor the internet, most notably in the European Union, a private, censored version of Google Search would show these governments that it is not only possible but already a reality, to completely remove certain topics from the web. Having a strongly controlling authority, like the Chinese government or the EU, with the ability to wipe content from the web for their is a scary prospect, and being aided by Google makes it not only worse, but seem a legitimate option.