- An internal war is raging at Google between those who want the company to be transparent about its China search engine plans, and those who do not.
- That’s the view of Jack Poulson, a scientist who quit Google last month over the so-called Project Dragonfly.
- Poulson said he was part of a growing Silicon Valley movement, demanding “transparency, oversight, and accountability” for the systems built by companies like Google.
- His comments came as Google confirmed the existence of Project Dragonfly for the first time in a public forum.
An internal war is raging at Google over the company’s project to build a censored search engine in China.
That’s the picture painted by Jack Poulson, a scientist who quit Google last month over the China plans, in a letter to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
Poulson revealed that there are two sides emerging at Google: Those who want to discuss and expose information about the secret plans, dubbed “Project Dragonfly,” and those who want to suppress transparency.
The scientist said Google management is “clamping down” on whistleblowers trying to lift the lid on Project Dragonfly details, while many employees also “fear the possible consequences” of speaking out.
In his letter to Senator John Thune, he listed four details about the China plans he has been able to verify. These included linking phone numbers to search queries and only including Chinese government-approved air quality data in results.
“Each of these details was internally escalated by other employees to no avail, and many of them were discussed extensively on internal mailing lists; I understand that such discussion has since been increasingly stifled,” Poulson continued.
His words about the two factions at Google echo the reporting of The Intercept, which has led the way in exposing details about Google’s ambition to return to China after exiting in 2010.
The website reported last week that Google management responded furiously when they discovered that secret details about Project Dragonfly were being circulated in a confidential memo authored by an engineer.
“Google human resources personnel emailed employees who were believed to have accessed or saved copies of the memo and ordered them to immediately delete it from their computers,” The Intercept said.
Poulson said transparency is vital. “I am part of a growing movement in the tech industry advocating for more transparency, oversight, and accountability for the systems we build,” he added.
Business Insider has contacted Google for comment.
Google acknowledges Project Dragonfly for the first time
Google’s reluctance to face questions about Dragonfly were illustrated this month when Alphabet CEO Larry Page refused to give evidence to the Senate Intelligence Committee. He was empty chaired at the hearing.
But this changed on Wednesday, when Google responded to the concerns of lawmakers who sit on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
The search giant confirmed the existence of Project Dragonfly for the first time in a public forum. “There is a Project Dragonfly,” said Google’s Chief Privacy Officer Keith Enright.
But Enright was evasive under questioning and stressed that the project is nowhere near launch. He added that if Google does build a China search engine, it will be “consistent with our values in privacy and data protection.”
“I will say that my understanding is that we are not, in fact, close to launching a search product in China, and whether we would or could at some point in the future remains unclear,” he said. “If we were, in fact, to finalise a plan to launch a search product in China, my team would be actively engaged.”
Here’s Jack Poulson’s letter in full:
Dear Members of the Senate Commerce Committee:
Senator Thune set the tone for the upcoming hearing by stating that “Consumers deserve clear answers and standards on data privacy protection.”
Given the scale and social impact of the technical systems being deployed by Google and other corporations, I would add that greater oversight and accountability of not only data, but also the systems that are designed and deployed based on such data, is urgently needed.
Until the beginning of this month, I worked in Google’s Research and Machine Intelligence division as a Senior Research Scientist, where one of my primary responsibilities was improving Google’s search accuracy across a wide variety of languages.
I was compelled to resign my position on August 31, 2018, in the wake of a pattern of unethical and unaccountable decision making from company leadership. This culminated in their refusal to disclose information about Project Dragonfly, a version of Google Search tailored to the censorship and surveillance demands of the Chinese government.
Like most of the world, including most Google employees, I learned about this effort on August 1, 2018, from public reporting. It is notable that Project Dragonfly was well underway at the time the company released its AI Principles.
As has been widely understood, by human rights organisations, investigative reporters, Google employees, and the public, Project Dragonfly directly contradicts the AI Principles’ commitment to not “design or deploy” any technology whose purpose “contravenes widely accepted principles of […] human rights”.
Some of the most disturbing components of Project Dragonfly, which I here directly verify, include:
- A prototype interface designed to allow a Chinese joint venture company to search for a given user’s search queries based on their phone number.
- An extensive censorship blacklist developed in accordance with Chinese government demands. Among others, it contained the English term ‘human rights’, the Mandarin terms for ‘student protest’ and ‘Nobel prize’, and very large numbers of phrases involving ‘Xi Jinping’ and other members of the CCP.
- Explicit code to ensure only Chinese government-approved air quality data would be returned in response to Chinese users’ search.
- A catastrophic failure of the internal privacy review process, which one of the reviewers characterised as actively subverted.
Each of these details was internally escalated by other employees to no avail, and many of them were discussed extensively on internal mailing lists; I understand that such discussion has since been increasingly stifled. I cannot speak for those who escalated these concerns, but I share their fear of the possible consequences.
I am part of a growing movement in the tech industry advocating for more transparency, oversight, and accountability for the systems we build. The primary goals are laid out in the Google Ethics Code Yellow Petition, which not only continues to circulate throughout Google but has also been endorsed by 14 human rights organisations and several technology experts.
I humbly ask that The Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation call on Google’s representative for the hearing, Mr. Keith Enright, to respond to the sincere and credible concerns of the coalition of 14 human rights organisations who drafted an August 28th Open Letter To Google.
I also ask the committee to inquire about how Google is meeting its commitments to privacy under its own AI Principles and the Global Network Initiative, of which Google is a member. Dragonfly is part of a broad pattern of unaccountable decision making across the tech industry.
It has been made clear, both by word and by action, that the leadership at Google will be clamping down on the types of internal investigation that were necessary to bring Project Dragonfly to light. I would hope that The Committee would help protect the environment needed for future whistleblowers by taking steps to guarantee ethical transparency and oversight across Silicon Valley.
/S/ Dr. Jack Poulson
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