Google’s secret ‘Dragonfly’ project is a major threat to human rights

"This has much wider implications for Google, and for human rights online more generally."

Google is trying to help China strengthen its massive censorship machine, and the company keeps lying about its work. CREDIT: JOHANNES EISELE / GETTY
Google is trying to help China strengthen its massive censorship machine, and the company keeps lying about its work. CREDIT: JOHANNES EISELE / GETTY

For years, Google has acted as the model of a Big Tech company with an ethical backbone. Much of that reputation stems from the company’s 2010 decision to leave China entirely, a move Google attributed to its desire to “no longer continue censoring our results” in the face of Chinese government pressure.

Over the past few months, however, Google’s moral standing has plummeted. Thanks to a series of insider leaks and investigations, coupled with concerted pressure from human rights groups, Google’s plans to quietly return to China and aid the Chinese government’s unprecedented censorship regime are no longer secret.

Google’s “Dragonfly” project is a new search engine — one the company claims is only in its earliest stages — that would censor information at the behest of the Chinese government. Dragonfly would not only allow Chinese authorities to prevent citizens from learning about issues like human rights, but it would also, according to one Google employee who resigned in protest, even block access to accurate air quality data.

The development of Dragonfly comes as the Chinese government continues building the world’s largest system of concentration camps globally, disappearing and detaining at least one million Muslims across the country’s western region of Xinjiang. The camps are the latest in the Chinese Communist Party’s lengthy list of human rights abuses, from becoming the global leader in executions to cracking down on Christians to widespread organ harvesting.


Google executives like CEO Sundar Pichai have elected to repeatedly downplay and distort the company’s work with the Chinese government, but Google employees aren’t taking the news lying down. Dragonfly revelations have sparked an unprecedented explosion of internal dissent; the number of Google employees expressing their opposition to the project now reaches into the thousands, and some of the more vocal are beginning to discuss the possibility of a strike.

“This has much wider implications for Google, and for human rights online more generally,” Joe Westby, a researcher on technology and human rights with Amnesty International, told ThinkProgress. “We’re talking about the world’s largest search engine caving in to a model of the internet that is probably the most repressive in the world… [Google’s] willingness to so demonstrably compromise on its human rights commitment will mean that it’s very difficult to trust Google on its statements on human rights, and on its own commitments to human rights in the future.”

Flight of the Dragonfly

Google’s planned search engine, first revealed by The Intercept in August, is a deceptively simple system. Structured as an Android app, Google has reportedly constructed a search system mirroring it current set-up in the U.S. — with one colossal difference.

Where Google in the U.S. provides a wealth of search returns on all topics, the Chinese project takes an opposite approach. The search function for Dragonfly will return search findings, but it will throttle anything that might lead citizens to question the Chinese Communist Party’s lines on topics like human rights or the 1989 government-led massacre at Tiananmen Square, during which Communist Party forces killed thousands of protesters.


One former Google senior researcher even revealed that Dragonfly would “ensure only Chinese government-approved air quality data would be returned in response to Chinese users’ search” — a restriction that would not only help whitewash one of the most pressing environmental issues in the country, but directly threaten the health of tens of millions of Chinese citizens in the country’s urban cores.

“Human rights defenders are routinely arrested in China, and by providing access to data in China, there’s a really high risk Google will be complicit.”

But that’s not all. Dragonfly would reportedly link Chinese users’ search queries directly to their phone numbers, according to The Guardian. The search engine will also track the locations of Chinese users.

As an open letter to Pichai from over a dozen human rights organizations — including Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch — stated, the Dragonfly project “would represent an alarming capitulation by Google on human rights.”

“In terms of the most worrying aspects of the Dragonfly prototype we’ve been hearing, I think it’s the fact that Google would seemingly be giving pretty open access to Chinese authorities, giving them info and data on all Chinese users,” Westby told ThinkProgress. “Human rights defenders are routinely arrested in China, and by providing access to data in China, there’s a really high risk Google will be complicit.”


Westby added that he’s been “disappointed” by Google’s milquetoast response to the human rights’ groups concerns thus far. 

Amnesty International released a parody video critiquing the tech giant; “Google: Don’t be evil. Except when it’s profitable,” the narrator says.

Employing defense

Google first began working on the new search engine early last year and has reportedly demonstrated how it works for Chinese government officials. But it wasn’t until a series of reports a few months ago that the world, and almost all of Google’s employees, realized what the company was doing.

“The secrecy surrounding the work,” wrote The Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher, “was unheard of at Google.”

Based on the actions of Google’s executives, however, it seems the secrecy was a feature, not a bug. Only a few dozen employees knew about the project; even then, as one former Google employee wrote, that information was “siloed,” much of it “kept from prying eyes.”

“To make ethical choices, Googlers need to know what we’re building. Right now we don’t.”

But Google’s executives couldn’t keep a project of this magnitude under wraps for long. As details began spilling out, pro-democracy and human rights advocates weren’t the only ones taking note. Google’s employees, attracted to a company that had long touted the unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil,” began bucking their superiors and voicing their concerns.

In August, a letter circulated among Google employees who wanted to take a stand against Dragonfly. “To make ethical choices, Googlers need to know what we’re building. Right now we don’t,” the letter read. “We urgently need more transparency, a seat at the table, and a commitment to clear and open processes: Google employees need to know what we’re building.” 

The letter’s recommendations weren’t radical; the employees who signed on weren’t calling for a cancellation of the project or a complete overhaul. Instead, it described the situation as a “Code Yellow,” alerting employees about an imminent crisis, and called for simple, obvious fixes, from the creation of an ombudsperson to an ethics review structure. In the end, the letter was signed by nearly 1,500 employees.

I think the fact that you see employees uncomfortable working on these products, or what looks like in a secret, underhanded way, and expressing disapproval — it’s important, because the fact is you can’t rely only on NGOs to fight for freedom of expression,” Courtney Radsch, the Committee to Protect Journalist’s advocacy director, told ThinkProgress. 

A handful of employees have already reportedly resigned due to the company’s secrecy surrounding Dragonfly. While some haven’t publicized their departure, others, like former Google engineer Brandon Downey and former senior researcher Jack Poulson, have come out publicly against what they see as Google’s moral collapse.

I want to say I’m sorry for helping to do this,” Downey wrote. “I don’t know how much this contributed to strengthening political support for the censorship regime in [China], but it was wrong. It did nothing but benefit me and my career, and so it fits the classic definition of morally heedless behavior: I got things and in return it probably made some other people’s life worse.”

Poulson has already written two public letters blasting Google for its sudden lack of “ethical red lines.” Poulson’s first letter, from August, announced that he’d been “forced to resign in order to avoid contributing to, or profiting from, the erosion of protections for dissidents.”

Another letter, from September, had a more direct audience: Congress. Addressing the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Poulson wrote that he was “compelled to resign… in the wake of a pattern of unethical and unaccountable decision making from company leadership.” Since he left the company, Poulson added, he’d learned that employee discussions on Dragonfly have “been increasingly stifled.” 

Poulson’s public resignation appears to have had its intended effect, at least as it pertains to Congress taking interest in Google’s work with the Chinese government. Growing concern about Google helping the Chinese Communist Party censor and track Chinese citizens has also crossed party lines.

A bipartisan group of senators — including Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and Mark Warner (D-VA) — wrote a letter to Pichai, Google’s CEO, noting that the company’s decision to help Beijing is a “coup for the Chinese government and Communist Party,” one that “is deeply troubling and risks making Google complicit in human rights abuses related to China’s rigorous censorship regime.”

The House of Representatives followed with its own bipartisan letter to Pichai shortly thereafter. Led by Reps. David Cicilline (D-RI) and Michael McCaul (R-TX), the letter reminded Google that Congress had “a responsibility to ensure that American companies are not perpetuating human rights abuses abroad.”

And while President Donald Trump, amidst his trade war with Beijing, hasn’t commented directly on Dragonfly, Vice President Mike Pence blasted the company in October, saying, “Google should immediately end development of the ‘Dragonfly’ app that will strengthen Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers.”

Lies, damned lies, and Google

Much of the concern over Google’s decision to return to Beijing and work directly with the Chinese Communist Party stems from the company’s choice to cloak the project in secrecy and go out of its way to misdirect and misinform anyone asking questions about Dragonfly.

Google executives “forced employees to delete a confidential memo… that revealed explosive details” about Dragonfly, according to The Intercept. The outlet also discovered that Google executives were “trying to shut down employees’ access to any documents that contained information” about Dragonfly.

“Pichai’s statement that Dragonfly was in its early stages ‘was ultimately horse shit.'”

Google’s leadership considered Dragonfly so sensitive that they would often communicate only verbally about it and would not take written notes during high-level meetings to reduce the paper trail,” the outlet wrote in late November. 

Alongside the effort to prevent Google employees from learning about the project, the company’s top executives repeatedly ducked questions about their work in China.

Much of that obfuscation has come from Pichai himself. Reportedly an enthusiastic supporter of the project in private, Pichai has said in public that Dragonfly is an “experiment” without any firm plans to launch — a claim that not only contradicts reporting on the project but Google employees’ own understanding of its status. Pichai even claimed Google would still be able to service 99 percent of queries with Dragonfly. (The censored terms, again, reportedly include words like “human rights.”)

As one Google employee said, Pichai’s statement that Dragonfly was in its early stages “was ultimately horse shit.”

Muddying the waters

Other Google executives have followed Pichai’s lead, at least as it pertains to obfuscation.

Search engine chief Ben Gomes, for instance, claimed in a leaked transcript obtained by The Intercept that Dragonfly is “extremely important to the company.” Gomes then told the BBC that Google has only done “some exploration” on the project with no plans to launch. Gomes’ claims that Dragonfly is merely an experiment were “bullshit,” according to another unnamed employee.

“It’s brought up the question: Who’s running the show?”

Scott Beaumont, Google’s head of Chinese operations, has also followed suit. Not only did Beaumont bypass Google’s security and privacy teams when developing Dragonfly, according to The Intercept’s Gallagher, but he even reportedly claimed that Google co-founder Sergey Brin had met with senior Chinese government officials, apparently voicing Google’s desire to re-enter the market.

Two sources working on Dragonfly believed that Beaumont may have misrepresented Brin’s position in an attempt to reassure the employees working on Dragonfly that the effort was fully supported at the highest levels of the company, when that may not have been the truth,” Gallagher wrote.

Google spokesperson Jenn Kaiser told ThinkProgress that “we dispute the allegations made in [the] story last week,” regarding recent reports of Dragonfly’s status. Kaiser did not respond to specific questions regarding reports that Google will only provide false air quality data, or the level of concern and outrage within the company.

Kaiser also pointed to a statement from Heather Adkins, Google’s senior director of information security, saying Dragonfly remains an “exploratory project,” and that “no decision has been made about whether we could or would launch.”

It’s a familiar refrain from Google’s executives, one that gives human rights advocates increasing cause for concern.

“That’s another troubling aspect of this — it does seem like misdirection at times from a company that’s generally been one of the more mature ones and open on a lot of issues,” Peter Micek, general counsel at the anti-censorship group Access Now, told ThinkProgress. “It’s brought up the question: Who’s running the show?”

Answers to the questions of who is overseeing Dragonfly and why the company has been so opaque about its work with the Chinese government could be imminent: Pichai was scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee last week, but a national day of mourning for George H.W. Bush postponed the hearing to Tuesday morning. It will be the company’s highest profile appearance on Capitol Hill, a newsworthy moment considering Google executives refused to appear at a separate hearing in September, leaving only an empty chair.

Google’s censorship machine

In the interim, the pressure is only building in opposition to Google’s plans to help burnish the Chinese government’s censorship machine. Another public letter is currently circulating among Google employees — one that no longer simply expresses concern, but this time calls for Google to “cancel project Dragonfly.”

“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 letter states. “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.”

Over 700 Google employees have publicly added their name to the letter, with more signing on every day. And employees have floated the idea of a strike if the company proceeds with Dragonfly, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover potential expenses.

Meanwhile, civil society organizations aren’t easing up either. Over 60 human rights groups issued another open letter this week condemning the company and its work to help Chinese authorities stifle their citizens. “We are writing to ask you to ensure that Google drops Project Dragonfly and any plans to launch a censored search app in China,” the signatories — including Edward Snowden — wrote.

“We’ve seen this with [Mark] Zuckerberg and Facebook: countless apologies, and then policies and practices that are in direct contradiction to those [apologies],” Radsch told ThinkProgress. “Their motto used to be ‘Don’t be evil’ — but maybe they’ve left that to the wayside.”