"Code Yellow": Google Employees Revolt Over Clandestine China Project

Google employees have issued a "code yellow" alert to company executives over brewing opposition to a planned censored search engine in China, citing "urgent moral and ethical issues" in a letter circulated internally, reports The Intercept

Staff inside the internet giant’s offices have agreed that the censorship project raises “urgent moral and ethical issues” and have circulated a letter saying so, and calling on bosses to disclose more about the company’s work in China, which they say is shrouded in too much secrecy, according to three sources with knowledge of the matter. -The Intercept

The last time Google employees revolted, the company abandoned its controversial AI-drone initiative known as "Project Maven" after around a dozen employees quit and close to 4,000 signed a petition. Many of the same people who led the last effort are now involved in the China protest. 

The China search engine project, revealed earlier this month by The Intercept from leaked documents, would "blacklist sensitive queries" so that "no results will be shown" when people enter certain words or phrases. Code-named "Dragonfly," the censorship plan was not widely known within Google - relegated to just a few hundred of the Mountain View, CA company's 88,000 employees. After The Intercept's August 1 article, however, angry employees were triggered into an uproar, leading to the "code yellow" situation. 

Now, a letter has been circulated among staff calling for Google’s leadership to recognize that there is a “code yellow” situation – a kind of internal alert that signifies a crisis is unfolding. The letter suggests that the Dragonfly initiative violates an internal Google artificial intelligence ethical code, which says that the company will not build or deploy technologies “whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.” -The Intercept

The letter reads in part: “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. 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 enraged employees are demanding "an ethics review that includes rank and file employee representatives," as well as the appointment of an ombudsperson to represent them, and a general call for more transparency.

Many Google employees are members of the Association of Computing Machinery, the world’s largest organization for computing professionals. The ACM’s ethical code states that its members should “take action to avoid creating systems or technologies that disenfranchise or oppress people” and “use their skills for the benefit of society.” Two Google sources told The Intercept that they felt the Dragonfly project clearly violated the ACM’s code of ethics, which has led them to support the protests inside the company against the planned China censorship. -The Intercept

According to sources, Google executives still haven't broached the subject of Dragonfly with employees - while the company also hasn't addressed it with the press, saying that it won't comment on "speculation about future plans." 

This non-answer has only fueled more anger within the company - with some employees questioning their managers, only to be frustrated from a lack of information. At least one employee who worked on Dragonfly quit the company partly over concerns about the project. Another employee has refused to work on it. 

Earlier this week, hundreds of Google employees shared an essay authored by former Google engineer Brandon Downey, who claims to have worked on an earlier iteration of the censored Chiense search engine in 2006, which was deployed for around four years before the search giant pulled the project over Chinese government efforts to limit free speech and other issues. 

“I want to say I’m sorry for helping to do this,” Downey wrote. “I don’t know how much this contributed to strengthening political support for the censorship regime in [China], but it was wrong. It did nothing but benefit me and my career, and so it fits the classic definition of morally heedless behavior: I got things and in return it probably made some other people’s life worse.”

“We have a responsibility to the world our technology enables,” Downey adds. “If we build a tool and give it to people who are hurting other people with it, it is our job to try to stop it, or at least, not help it. Technology can of course be a force for good, but it’s not a magic bullet – it’s more like a laser and it’s up to us what we focus it on. What we can’t do is just collaborate, and assume it will have a happy ending.”

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of six US senators and various human rights groups, including Amnesty Internationalhave condemned the Dragonfly project. 

Human Rights Watch senior research Cynthia Wong told The Intercept that Google "owes the Chinese people an explanation of how the firm can launch Dragonfly without being conscripted into human rights abuses."

“Google earned a lot of good will from the human rights community with it stopped censoring search in 2010. Yet the human rights situation has only deteriorated in the years since. If it re-enters now without any clear strategy as to how its services will improve human rights, it would be a victory for [President] Xi Jinping’s regime and will only serve to legitimize the government’s abusive approach. We haven’t yet heard any such strategy," Wong added.