This afternoon outside Google’s King’s Cross headquarters, a small group of protesters gathered to put pressure on the firm to scrap leaked plans for a censored Chinese search engine, codenamed Project Dragonfly. The protest was orchestrated under the Stop Google Censorship campaign, which is comprised of groups associated with SumOfUs, the Tibetan independence movement and Uighur Muslims. It
This afternoon outside Google’s King’s Cross headquarters, a small group of protesters gathered to put pressure on the firm to scrap leaked plans for a censored Chinese search engine, codenamed Project Dragonfly.
The protest was orchestrated under the Stop Google Censorship campaign, which is comprised of groups associated with SumOfUs, the Tibetan independence movement and Uighur Muslims. It was planned on the same day as Internet Freedom Day, and was mirrored by planned gatherings outside Google offices in the US, Canada, India, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark.
When Techworld arrived, two security guards were talking to the protest organisers, but they quickly departed on reassurances that the protest would be peaceful.
Outside the glass-fronted headquarters, based in Granary Square near King’s Cross Station, a group of between 10 to 15 protesters were gathered, some of them tending to clumps of red balloons emblazoned with the Google logo dappled with the gold stars of the Chinese flag.
The Intercept first revealed the Dragonfly Project in August 2018, citing insider sources and a leaked company memo. Google was reportedly harvesting information from 265.com, a Chinese-language web directory purchased by the company in 2008 that redirected any search traffic to the biggest Chinese search engine, Baidu.
The Intercept claimed the project had been underway since spring of 2017, however, it was alleged by the publication that Google’s privacy team wasn’t notified of the use of 265.com in this way.
If launched, the search engine would have to cooperate with censorship laws from the Chinese government, including barring search results of certain publications such as the BBC, and certain search terms such as news, academic studies and sex, as well as references to Tiananmen square and Tibetan independence.
But this isn’t the protesters only qualm with the project, it’s also due to the requirements to comply with new Chinese Internet Security law introduced in 2018.
“One of the most damaging aspects of that law is that internet service providers are required to capture details of people using their services, and that would include Dragonfly,” John Jones, Free Tibet’s campaigns and communications manager told Techworld.
The law requires that the details of searchers on the service be made available to security services should they request them.
“In theory, someone could be arrested and imprisoned based on what they search for using Google’s search engine in China,” points out Jones. He says this is a particular concern for the group based on their understanding that there have been past incidences where Chinese citizens are imprisoned for searches through Chinese websites.
The Intercept reported in December 2018 that in the aftermath of their revelations, the project has stalled. Google itself also stated that it has no ambitions to launch in China. However, many see this as not truly indicative that its interest in the rising superpower has been extinguished.
“We can’t take anything for granted so we’re going to keep putting pressure on them and hopefully get some sort of acknowledgement from the company itself that this project has been scrapped,” says Jones.
Jones says the fact that Google has now distanced itself from the allegations shows that the company was cognisant of the bad optics surrounding developing something like this. But he doesn’t see the business as monolithic.
“There’s the executives and there’s the people developing the project, but then there’s also many of the staff who are decent people who are ideologically opposed to this,” says Jones, pointing to dissent from within the tech giant. “They’ve been the ones leaking the information about it, contacting journalists and in some cases even resigning – because they think it violates the vision they had when they started working for Google.”
The group claim that some of the employees emerging from Google had engaged with the protest, with one signalling support, and another saying that this was a topic of intense discussion within the offices too. Techworld can’t confirm this as no one approached the protesters during the time we were present.
The project also seems to signal a pivot in Google’s former position when it pulled out of the China market, citing – in addition to a cybersecurity attack – censorship and the company’s principles for a free internet.
Although in its early days the company preached somewhat utopian ideals it recently dropped its infamous ‘don’t be evil’ slogan from its code of conduct.
The Project Dragonfly revelations came amidst domestic controversies in Silicon Valley. Google had been working with the US government on a drone programme called Project Maven, while Amazon workers protested their company aiding Trump’s deportation agency ICE.
Jones sees this as a blueprint for what pressure on the company could potentially achieve in regards to China.
Success, according to Jones, would look like an open acknowledgement of Google that it will be cancelling the Project Dragonfly search project. But he did acknowledge when asked by Techworld that China is not the only region where the titans of Silicon Valley have wormed their way into the state surveillance apparatus.
“From my point of view, any time they violate their own principles by handing over information that the user doesn’t know is being handed over they probably do need to examine themselves and be challenged for it and it doesn’t matter if it’s in China or the US,” Jones says. “The only difference is the extent to which they’re doing it and the possible penalty that someone can be paying. I’m sure if I was working on civil rights in the US I’d be up in arms about their past cases.”
The earlier Snowden revelations, meanwhile, proved that the intelligence agencies of the ‘Five Eyes’ governments – the USA, Canada, Britain, New Zealand, and Australia – had been collaborating on an intricate world-wide surveillance dragnet.
And amid questionable fears that Russian bot networks had impacted the result of the US presidential election in 2016, Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies have been working to black-ball news sources that they have labelled as ‘divisive’ – aided by the unabashedly pro-NATO think tank The Atlantic Council.
Free Tibet media relations employee and journalist, Michael Selby-Green, acknowledged that most of the people in attendance were volunteers or full-timers at groups relating to Tibet or other NGOs that exert pressure in China. He said that the protest was kept deliberately small – with minimal public outreach – because the intention was to picket Google employees and passers-by.
Jones says the problem isn’t Google offering a service in China per se.
“We have absolutely no problem in theory if Google were to open a search engine in China free from constraints of the government, we’d be completely happy with it,” he says. “The minute they start colluding with governments that are repressing human rights and develop a tool that could help them such as tracking peoples’ searches, that’s when they’ve got to be challenged.”
Some would say that from a business perspective, that the company is loathe to ignore such a vast emerging and potentially extremely lucrative market, however Selby-Green says that this doesn’t make it justifiable.
“I don’t think the ends justify the means, you’ve got to say what your values are and you have to stick to those I think,” Selby-Green says. “If Google’s values are internet freedom and things we hold dear in the west or think we do, then I think Google has to stand by that and sacrifice that market and the profits in that market if that’s what they hold dear.”
In 2018 Samm Sacks of the Henry Kissenger-supported think tank the CSIS detailed the ins and outs of the Cyber Internet Security Law – which was inspired at least in part by Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, putting Chinese data regulations on more of an even footing with American and European laws, at least concerning personal data held by private companies.
She added at the time that for successful companies operating within the valuable China market, success is only possible with the support of the government. Countries seeking closer ties with China, meanwhile, are approaching its government for advice on how to govern the internet.
It could be argued that Google, which was reached for comment but has not responded, is stuck between a rock and a hard place concerning China.
Google will not want to ignore the country’s growing economy, but the project was leaked during a climate of increased western scrutiny directed at China, as well as an ongoing trade war between the USA and China and the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Whanzhou in Canada.
Western intelligence has, meanwhile, warned of the over-reliance of Chinese infrastructure equipment from Huawei – although the German technology watchdog found no evidence of wrongdoing and the company has long been under the watch of cybersecurity experts at a centre in Banbury, Oxfordshire.