Google Staff Demand Answers Over Censorship Search App

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Search engine for Chinese market still a long way from launching says Alphabet boss, amid staff concern

Alphabet’s chief executive Sundar Pichai has reportedly confirmed that Google is not close to launching a search engine app in China.

However, Pichai did confirm the firm is developing the app, and he said during a company-wide meeting that “providing more services in that country fits with Google’s global mission.”

It comes after a number of media reports earlier this month suggested Google was seeking to re-enter the Chinese market with an Android search app that would blacklist content deemed unacceptable by Chinese authorities.

Search app

That decision to develop a mobile search app (Project Dragonfly) for China is hugely controversial, as it opens the firm up to allegations of supporting state censorship.

And it seems that staff at Google are a tad concerned about the development, after Reuters reported an internal petition from “hundreds of staff” calling for more transparency and oversight of the project.

“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,” states the document seen by Reuters.

Many staff feel that the development of the controversial app would violate Google’s “don’t be evil” clause in its code of conduct.

China of course is widely considered to have one of the most repressive Internet censorship schemes in the world, which is designed to prevent criticism of the ruling Communist Party and suppress dissent and other information deemed dangerous to the state.

Whether Google could or would launch search in China “is all very unclear,” Pichai said, according to the transcript of the meeting seen by Reuters. “The team has been in an exploration stage for quite a while now, and I think they are exploring many options.”

“We’ll definitely be transparent as we get closer to actually having a plan of record here” on Dragonfly, Reuters quoted Pichai as saying on the transcript. He noted the company guards information on some projects where sharing too early can “cause issues.”

Google has declined to comment publicly on the matter.

Project Dragonfly

It is understood that the Chinese search app is being tailored for the Android operating system.

Google has reportedly demonstrated the service to Chinese government officials, but the app would still require Chinese government approval before it could be launched in that country.

The search app is said to automatically identify and filter websites blocked by China’s ‘Great Firewall’.

It should be remembered that Google effectively retreated from the Chinese market in 2010 and its websites and services remain blocked in that country, after it refused to abide by its censorship rules.

Google at the time accused Chinese-based hackers of carrying out a number of attacks on the Gmail accounts of human rights activists. That triggered a huge political row between America and China in 2011.

Despite that retreat, Google still has several hundred staff in China, and in December 2017 it launched its own artificial intelligence (AI) lab there.

And this is not the first time that Google’s management has angered its own staff.

Some Google staff resigned earlier this year because of a controversial contract with the Pentagon to use artificial intelligence (AI) for weapons systems.

Such was the backlash that in June this year Google pledged to end the project, and it told its staff that it would not renew its contract with the US Department of Defence when it expires next year.

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