Lawmakers Demand Answers from Google Over Chinese Censorship Project

'Google should not be helping China crack down on free speech and political dissent'

Image Credits: Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

U.S. lawmakers are seeking answers from Google over the company’s work on a censored search engine for China.

The bipartisan group, led by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), includes 16 members from the U.S. House of Representatives.

In a letter posted to Twitter Thursday, Cicilline and his fellow lawmakers demanded that Google CEO Sundar Pichai answer questions on the secretive project known as “Dragonfly.”

“Google should not be helping China crack down on free speech and political dissent,” Cicilline wrote. “I just sent this letter with some of my Republican and Democratic colleagues raising our serious concerns and questions about what they’re doing.”

The letter questions Google’s decision and notes that the company pulled a similar search engine from China in 2010 after the nation both censored its citizens and even attempted to hack Google systems.

“The Chinese government routinely monitors the speech and activities of activists, religious minorities, and anyone who, in their mind, poses a threat to Chinese Communist Party rule,” the letter states. “Since Google left China in 2010, censorship has gotten even more severe, with the passage and implementation of a new cyber-security law, which would, among other concerning requirements, force network providers to store certain data directly with the Chinese government.”

Numerous questions at the end of the letter also ask Google to reveal what “terms, words or events” will be censored and whether Chinese citizens and Americans living abroad will be surveilled with the help of the company’s technology.

“As policymakers, we have a responsibility to ensure that American companies are not perpetuating human rights abuses abroad, and to ensure that our regulatory and statutory systems are able to deal with changing business environments,” the letter adds.

The letter was released on the same day as a report from The Intercept, which first revealed the existence of Dragonfly, detailing how a senior Google scientist resigned in protest over the project.

Jack Poulson, who worked as a senior research scientist for Google’s research and machine intelligence department, told The Intercept he felt an “ethical responsibility to resign” over the “forfeiture of our public human rights commitments.”

In a resignation letter to his managers at Google, Paulson also warned that “other nations will attempt to leverage our actions in China in order to demand our compliance with their security demands.”

“Due to my conviction that dissent is fundamental to functioning democracies, I am forced to resign in order to avoid contributing to, or profiting from, the erosion of protection for dissidents,” Poulson wrote. “I view our intent to capitulate to censorship and surveillance demands in exchange for access to the market as a forfeiture of our values and governmental negotiating position across the globe.”

While only five employees are believed to have resigned over the project, more than 1,400 Google employees signed a letter to Pichai last month demanding answers.

“Currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment. That the decision to build Dragonfly was made in secret, and progressed with the [artificial intelligence] Principles in place, makes clear that the Principles alone are not enough,” the letter said. “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.”

A group of leading human rights organizations similarly wrote a letter to Pichai last month calling on Google to immediately cease its involvement with Dragonfly.

“Like many of Google’s own employees, we are extremely concerned by reports that Google is developing a new censored search engine app for the Chinese market,” the letter said. “The Chinese government extensively violates the rights to freedom of expression and privacy; by accomodating the Chinese authorities’ repression of dissent, Google would be actively participating in those violations for millions of internet users in China.”

Google thus far has declined to publicly comment on the project, while Pichai earlier this month refused to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee to discuss the issue.

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