Google staff revolt over secret China censorship project

Sundar Pichai in an olive green jacket and jeans standing onstage at the Shoreline Amphitheater Mountain View

Google CEO Sundar Pichai says the company isn't close to launching a search product in China. James Martin CNET

Google CEO Sundar Pichai and cofounder Sergey Brin met with employees during an all-hands meeting on Thursday and discussed reports that Google planned to launch a censored search engine in China.

The latest scandal at Silicon Valley's golden child comes just months after Google employees spoke out about the company's involvement in an initiative developing artificial intelligence technology for the U.S. Defense Department.

More than a thousand workers have signed a letter, obtained by The Hill, demanding greater transparency and ethical oversight within the company as well as more say in the projects that Google takes on. And so far, there's no indication that they have - the company declined the Times' request to comment on the letter.

Three former employees involved with Google's past efforts in China told Reuters that current leadership might think that offering limited search results in China is better than providing no information at all.

In a letter to Pichai earlier this month, a bipartisan group of six USA senators called Google's potential return to China "deeply troubling", noting the country's repressive surveillance apparatus, human rights abuses and its alleged record of taking intellectual property from foreign technology companies.

"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", states the document seen by Reuters.

"We are not close to launching a search product in China", Pichai said, according to a transcript of the meeting provided to Bloomberg.

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Google services, including its search engine, Gmail and Google Drive, are all blocked in China.

The first two questions from staff members at Google's Thursday meeting were about Dragonfly, the people said.

It is the second time this year that Google staff have protested against the company's plans.

"China is one-fifth of the world's population".

Only a few hundred of 88,000 employees at Google have been informed of the secret project, The Intercept claims.

Since Google quit China in 2010, there have been a number of rumours about a return, subject to local laws, but they have come to nothing. It's also not sure that Dragonfly will ever become a reality, and the recent incidents have made Google's path even bumpier.

The former employees said they doubt the Chinese government will welcome back Google.

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