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Human Rights Groups Blast Google for 'Actively Aiding China's Censorship and Surveillance Regime'

Ahead of CEO's congressional testimony, Amnesty International and others are calling on the company to #DropDragonfly—a censored search engine specifically designed for the country

Google China sign

The Google logo is featured at the company's headquarters in Beijing, China on March 23, 2010. (Photo: Feng Li/Getty Images)

In an open letter addressed to Google's chief executive Sundar Pichai, a coalition of human rights groups and advocates are raising alarm about the company "actively aiding China's censorship and surveillance regime" with its work on a search engine project called 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."
—Google employees

The letter (pdf) came ahead of Pichai's Tuesday morning testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Google's data collection, use, and filtering practices. His prepared remarks (pdf) read, "I'm incredibly proud of what Google does to empower people around the world, especially here in the U.S."

Digital rights defenders, meanwhile, are concerned about the company's plans to launch a censored search engine in China, warning that it "is likely to set a terrible precedent for human rights and press freedoms worldwide."

Signed by 61 groups—including Amnesty International, the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), and Human Rights Watch—as well as 11 individuals that include NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the letter points to a series of reports from The Intercept that detail how the project "would facilitate repressive state censorship, surveillance, and other violations affecting nearly a billion people in China."

As Ryan Gallagher's latest report for the outlet, published Monday night, outlined:

A prototype for the censored search engine was designed to blacklist broad categories of information about human rights, democracy, and peaceful protest. It would link Chinese users' searches to their personal cellphone number and store people's search records inside the data centers of a Chinese company in Beijing or Shanghai, which would be accessible to China's authoritarian Communist Party government.

Acknowledging the Chinese government's internment camps for Muslim ethnic groups in the autonomous northwest territory of Xinjiang, Amnesty International business and human rights adviser William Nee noted in an op-ed published Tuesday that "Dragonfly search will almost certainly reinforce and exacerbate the persecution and discrimination against ethnic minorities and Muslims in China."

Reiterating the growing demand—which Amnesty and others have made for months—that Google #DropDragonfly and refrain from any future endeavors that would provide similar services to China or other countries trying to censor and spy on their citizens, the letter also echoes a call from Google employees that the company cancel the project.

"Dragonfly search will almost certainly reinforce and exacerbate the persecution and discrimination against ethnic minorities and Muslims in China."
—William Nee, Amnesty International

In November, hundreds of software engineers and other workers released an open letter that declared, "Google is too powerful not to be held accountable."

"The Chinese government certainly isn't alone in its readiness to stifle freedom of expression, and to use surveillance to repress dissent," the employees' letter pointed out. "Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be."

Whether Google will finally heed the concerns of digital rights groups and its own employees remains to be seen—especially considering that, as EFF's Danny O'Brien wrote Monday, "under Pichai's leadership, Google appears to have ignored not just outside advice; the company has apparently ignored the advice of its own privacy and security experts."

As O'Brien noted, a November report from The Intercept that relied on four sources who worked on Project Dragonfly revealed that Google's head of operations in China "shut out members of the company's security and privacy team from key meetings about the search engine...and tried to sideline a privacy review of the plan that sought to address potential human rights abuses."

While expressing disappointment that, if the report is accurate, Google is "throwing away its own engineers' guidance," O'Brien also expressed hope that during Pichai's testimony, he will come "clean about Project Dragonfly to the Judiciary committee, and not hide behind vague descriptions, and promises that are made in public, but broken in secret."

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