Google’s censored search engine Dragonfly that was slated to be launched in China was full of controversies even before it became public. The backlash it has received so far is working as Google has reportedly halted the project. Lokman Tsui, former Google Head of Free Expression said late this August that it was a wrong idea and that this move is a stupid one. For Google to operate in China, it will have to violate widely held international human rights standards. Brandon Downey, another former Googler who worked on the original censored Google search engine even got overwhelmed with guilt and penned an apology essay criticizing the censorship and calling on Google not to “make the same mistake twice” by launching Dragonfly.
Current Googlers (almost 1400) jumped on the criticism bandwagon and signed a letter to protest the development of the censored search engine and news app demanding more transparency, oversight, input, more power and more control from the company to understand the ethical consequences of their work. Other more than 400 Google employees also signed another open letter imploring the search giant to cancel the development of the Chinese search app, citing that it will enable censorship and human rights violations by the Chinese government. This move put them in conflict with Google but got them to define the narrative with no pushback from Google. And it finally worked.
The internal conflicts between the people working on this project and the privacy team( this project was so secretive that even Sergey Brin didn’t know about it until this conflict brought it to his attention in a Google meeting early this August.)
Google has been using 265.com, a Chinese popular website it bought to gather search data for market research. Google’s privacy team were not in the loop and were not informed of the use of the website. The data collected was to see what people in mainland China were searching for in order to build a Dragonfly prototype. Using BeaconTower, the team then cross-referenced websites people searched with Google search results blocked by the Great Firewall, China’s internet censorship system. The banned websites are then aggregated for Dragonfly so that it purges websites prohibited from being accessed to in China.
Scott Beaumont, Google’s leader in China and an indispensable architect of Project Dragonfly said that he didn’t feel that his product decisions should be questioned by Google’s legal, privacy and security teams.
This behaviour goes against Google’s search queries protocols and the confrontation about the data used from 265.com made the Google privacy team tell the Google engineers working on Dragonfly to stop collecting the data that was important for building this project. Access to this data has been halted and thus stopping progress on Dragonfly, a source told Intercept.
So far, the engineers working on the search engine have been told to gather this data elsewhere which makes it virtually impossible to get accurate results for the prototype. Other engineers have been told to put their focus elsewhere.
What’s this 265.com website
The site which was shut down shortly is owned by Google and operated as a Subsidiary just like Youtube or Google.com itself and unlike them, the website is not blocked in China and can be accessed with a browser by people in China.
“It’s worrying that these reports suggest that Project Dragonfly has been shelved due to discrepancies over internal process, rather than over human rights concerns,” Amnesty International’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo comment on this recent finding.
In a public US Congress hearing to answer Dragonfly questions from US Senators, Google CEO, Sundar Pichai said that they had no plans of launching the said search engine but there is a possibility of it going live in the future.
Dragonfly was to launch within early to mid next year but the controversies it has raised and the backlash it has gotten from within and outside has made Google executives to put the project on hold, at least for now. Sundar Pichai will probably try to resurrect this project once this uproar dies down maybe later next year or the other.