Date
15 December 2018
Amnesty International activists hold a banner that reads: "Google, don't censor in China" during a protest outside Google's headquarters in Madrid on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters
Amnesty International activists hold a banner that reads: "Google, don't censor in China" during a protest outside Google's headquarters in Madrid on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

Google workers demand end to censored Chinese search project

More than 200 engineers, designers and managers at Alphabet Inc.’s Google demanded in an open letter that the company end development of a censored search engine for Chinese users, Reuters reports.

Google has described the search app, known as Project Dragonfly, as an experiment not close to launching. But as details of it have leaked since August, current and former employees, human rights activists and US lawmakers have criticized Google for not taking a harder line against the Chinese government’s policy that politically sensitive results be blocked.

Human rights group Amnesty International also launched a public petition on Tuesday calling on Google to cancel Dragonfly. The organization said it would encourage Google workers to sign the petition by targeting them on LinkedIn and protesting outside Google offices.

Google declined to comment on the employees’ letter as Alphabet shares fell 0.35 percent to US$1,052.28.

Google has long sought to have a bigger presence in China, the world’s largest internet market. It needs government approval to compete with the country’s dominant homegrown internet services.

An official at China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, who was unauthorized to speak publicly, told Reuters there was “no indication” from Google that it had adjusted earlier plans to eventually launch the search app. However, the official described a 2019 release as “unrealistic” without elaborating.

About 1,400 of Google’s tens of thousands of workers urged the company in August to improve oversight of ethically questionable ventures, including Dragonfly.

The nine employees who first signed their names on Tuesday’s letter said they had seen little progress.

The letter expresses concern about the Chinese government tracking dissidents through search data and suppressing truth through content restrictions.

“We object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be,” the employees said in the letter published on the blogging service Medium.

The employees said they no longer believe Google is “a company willing to place its values over profits,” and cited a string of “disappointments” this year, including acknowledgment of a big payout to an executive who had been accused of sexual harassment.

That incident sparked global protests at Google, which like other big technology companies has seen an uptick in employee activism during the last two years as their services become an integral part of civic infrastructure.

Not compliant with GDPR

Meanwhile, consumer agencies in the Netherlands, Poland and five other European Union countries asked privacy regulators on Tuesday to take action against Google for allegedly tracking the movements of millions of users in breach of the bloc’s new privacy law.

Google is already facing a lawsuit in the United States for allegedly tracking phone users regardless of privacy settings.

The consumer groups, which included those in the Czech Republic, Greece, Norway, Slovenia and Sweden, filed complaints with their respective national data protection authorities, based on research by their Norwegian counterpart.

Consumer lobby the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) alleges that Google uses various methods to encourage users to enable the settings “location history” and “web and app activity” which are integrated into all Google user accounts.

“These unfair practices leave consumers in the dark about the use of their personal data,” said BEUC, speaking on behalf of the countries’ consumer groups.

“These practices are not compliant with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), as Google lacks a valid legal ground for processing the data in question. In particular, the report shows that users’ consent provided under these circumstances is not freely given,” it said.

GDPR, which allows users to control their data, foresees fines of up to 4 percent of global revenues for companies that break the rules.

Asked for comment on the consumer groups’ complaints, a Google spokesman said: “Location History is turned off by default, and you can edit, delete, or pause it at any time. If it’s on, it helps improve services like predicted traffic on your commute.”

“If you pause it, we make clear that – depending on your individual phone and app settings – we might still collect and use location data to improve your Google experience.”

“We’re constantly working to improve our controls, and we’ll be reading this report closely to see if there are things we can take on board,” he said.

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CG

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