Human Rights Groups Ask Google to Respect Human Rights in its Operations in China

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Sundar Pichai, Chief Executive Officer of Google
Sundar Pichai, Chief Executive Officer of Google

Dozens of human rights groups and individuals have written an open letter to the internet search giant, Google, asking it to respect human rights online by dropping Project Dragonfly and any plans to launch a censored search app in China.  The groups are also seeking a reaffirmation of the company’s 2010 commitment that it will not provide censored search services in the country.

In an open letter addressed to Mr. Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, signatories to the letter expressed disappointed that in its letter of October 26 the internet search giant failed to address the serious concerns of human rights groups over Project Dragonfly.

The groups noted that instead of addressing the substantive issues set out in the August 28, 2018 letter to Mr. Pichai from various human rights organizations and individuals, Google’s response – along with further details that have since emerged about Project Dragonfly – only heightens their fear that the company may knowingly compromise its commitments to human rights and freedom of expression, in exchange for access to the Chinese search market.

They said they commend and support hundreds of current and former Google employees who in an open letter on November 27 asked Google to drop Dragonfly and echoed their statement that their “opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be.”

Further expressing their opposition, the signatories disclosed that: “New details leaked to the media strongly suggest that if Google launches such a product it would facilitate repressive state censorship, surveillance, and other violations affecting nearly a billion people in China.” It added that media reports say Google has built a prototype which censors blacklisted search terms including “human rights”, “student protest” and “Nobel Prize”, including in journalistic content, while also linking users’ search queries to personal phone numbers.

Additionally, the group said the prototype app is designed to force users to sign in to use the service, track and store location information and search histories, and provide “unilateral access” to such data to an unnamed Chinese joint venture company, in line with China’s data localization law thus allowing the government virtually unfettered access to this information.

They warned that facilitating Chinese authorities’ access to personal data, as described in media reports, would be particularly reckless adding, “If such features were launched, there is a real risk that Google would directly assist the Chinese government in arresting or imprisoning people simply for expressing their views online, making the company complicit in human rights violations.”
Actively aiding China’s censorship and surveillance regime, they pointed out, is likely to set a terrible precedent for human rights and press freedoms worldwide.

Citing the Freedom House annual report issued in October 2018 titled, ‘Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism’, which warns that the Chinese government is actively promoting its model of pervasive digital censorship and surveillance around the world, it pointed out that many governments look to China’s example.

A major industry leader’s acquiescence to such demands from China, they warned, will likely cause many other regimes to follow China’s lead, “provoking a race to the bottom in standards.”
The letter also pointed out several contradictions in Google’s letter to what actually operates in reality

The groups and individuals therefore urged Google to “heed concerns from its own employees and from organizations and individuals across the political spectrum by abandoning Project Dragonfly and reaffirming its commitment not to provide censored search services in China.” They also noted that the letter makes no reference to whistle-blowers, and thus urgently repeated their call to Google that it must publicly commit to protect the rights of whistle-blowers and other workers voicing rights concerns.

They welcomed Google’s confirmation that it “takes seriously” its responsibility to respect human rights but pointing out that it has so far failed to explain how it reconciles that responsibility with the its decision to design a product purpose-built to undermine the rights to freedom of expression and privacy.