SAN FRANCISCO — Hundreds of Google employees have signed a petition protesting a secret project to develop a search engine for China, the latest example of tech workers rebelling against corporate policies that push moral boundaries.
The letter, which was posted by Buzzfeed and first reported by The New York Times, says Google’s decision to work with China raises “urgent moral and ethical issues,” and that employees “do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions” about their work, projects and employment.
The employees, who represent a fraction of parent company Alphabet’s workforce of 89,000, also were upset by the secrecy of the project and in the petition demanded more transparency about the company’s myriad ventures, which range from self-driving cars to advanced artificial intelligence.
Google was scheduled to have a regular company-wide meeting between senior leadership and global employees late Thursday, during which in-person and remote staffers can ask any question they want. CEO Sundar Pichai as well as co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have been known to lead the meetings.
Google declined to comment on the petition.
The new protest comes on the heels of a similar letter signed by thousands of Google staffers concerned about the use of Google’s artificial intelligence technology in helping the military carry out drone strikes. In June, Google opted not to renew a contract that called for assisting the military with such drone-related tech, according to reports.
Also in June, hundreds of Microsoft employees signed a letter requesting that the software company cancel its contracts with ICE, the immigration enforcement agency, arguing that the contract was ethically troublesome. Under the Trump Administration, ICE has enforced a “zero tolerance” immigration policy.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella posted a response to the letter, noting that Microsoft’s contract with ICE was limited to helping the agency with bureaucratic products such as mail and calendar programs, adding that “engagement with any government has been and will be guided by our ethics and principles.”
Tech companies increasingly are being taken to task for how they make their money, sometimes from inside the company gates.
Last month, a Texas nonprofit that helps immigrants rejected a $250,000 donation from Salesforce, saying it won’t be part of what it calls an attempt by the company to buy its way out of an ethical quandary over its contracts with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Google’s China strategy has a long history, one anchored to its decision to pull out of the country in 2010 after it discovered that Chinese hackers had tried to hack the Gmail accounts of human rights activists.
Most of Google’s services were blocked in China after it stopped censoring search content in March 2010. At the time, Google’s about-face drew praise from politicians and human rights activists.
But despite China’s surveillance of residents Web activity, many tech companies are trying to find ways into what could be a wildly lucrative market. A few weeks ago, Facebook appeared to have gotten approval to open a subsidiary in China, but that approval quickly vanished. Last year, Google announced it was opening an AI outpost in China.
Working on a search engine that might restrict full access to web content for Chinese users was a step too far for some Google employees.
The Intercept reported earlier this month that Google has been working on a censored search engine for China, called Dragonfly, since last year. Google demonstrated a version of the censored search engine to Chinese officials, the Intercept said.
The app could launch six to nine months from now, and it would automatically block websites blacklisted by Beijing as well as search terms related to human rights, democracy, religion and peaceful protest, The Intercept said.
Google employees who signed the petition say they were unaware of Dragonfly, and therefore could not make an ethical decision on what they were building.
“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,” the letter says.
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