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Googlers propose a strike over China

Officially, Google's preferred description for Project Dragonfly is "exploratory." "This is an explor
November 29 · Issue #255 · View online
The Interface
Officially, Google’s preferred description for Project Dragonfly is “exploratory.” “This is an exploratory project and no decision has been made about whether we could or would launch,” the company said today, in the wake of a significant new report on its plans for a censored search engine in China.
“Exploratory” is a word that conjures the earliest stages of development — of the conquistador, standing at the shore of a new land, surveying rough its shape and character. But according to Thursday’s report by The Intercept’s ace Dragonfly chronicler Ryan Gallagher, Google’s explorations had already reached the final stages of development by the time word of the project leaked.
And as Gallagher describes it, that was the result of a concerted effort by one of the project’s leaders designed to ensure that no word of the project leak — that the explorers would have already colonized the new land before anyone else had realized they had even set sail:
Yonatan Zunger, then a 14-year veteran of Google and one of the leading engineers at the company, was among a small group who had been asked to work on Dragonfly. He was present at some of the early meetings and said he pointed out to executives managing the project that Chinese people could be at risk of interrogation or detention if they were found to have used Google to seek out information banned by the government.
Scott Beaumont, Google’s head of operations in China and one of the key architects of Dragonfly, did not view Zunger’s concerns as significant enough to merit a change of course, according to four people who worked on the project. Beaumont and other executives then shut out members of the company’s security and privacy team from key meetings about the search engine, the four people said, and tried to sideline a privacy review of the plan that sought to address potential human rights abuses.
Zunger is the first person who worked on Dragonfly to speak about it publicly. (He left Google last year.) He and other sources tell Gallagher that Beaumont tried to bring Dragonfly into existence by bypassing key oversight measures, such as a privacy review. “His ideal circumstance was that most people would find out about this project the day it launched,” one source told Gallagher.
On one hand, this is understandable. Technically, the fact that China censors search results is a state secret. But for the Googlers who have been asked to work on the project, that has come as cold comfort.
Google says "privacy reviews are non-negotiable and we never short-circuit the process.” But current and former Googlers have been riled by the revelations in Gallagher’s report. Brian Downey, who worked on projects related to Google’s 2006 move into China, called Thursday’s “the most jaw dropping of the Dragonfly stories.” The report suggests Google CEO Sundar Pichai lied to the public and to employees, Downey said. (Pichai has repeatedly characterized the project as exploratory.)
Meanwhile Liz Fong-Jones, a vocal internal critic who has pledged to quit Google in February if the company does not make significant policy changes, may be organizing a strike. In a Twitter thread, she asked fellow coworkers to put money into a strike fund that would help cover employees’ expenses during an extended walkout. Within hours, employees had raised $100,000.
The outpouring of funds reflects both Googlers’ growing sense of their own power, after the success of the walkout earlier this month, and their disdain of Project Dragonfly. Not everyone at the company shares that feeling. Just before publish time today, Google’s director of security and privacy, Heather Adkins, said she had not been sidelined during Dragonfly’s development.
But enough employees feel strongly about it that they are now organizing a labor action over it, in public, on Twitter. This is an extraordinary turn of events. At CNBC, Jillian D'Onfro talked to another of the contributors:
Current employee Irene Knapp, who previously made a public statement criticizing Google’s diversity efforts at Alphabet’s shareholder meeting earlier this year, also contributed to the fund.
“I’m proud to support this fund, it’s a great step forward,” Knapp says. “Everyone participating in labor efforts faces personal risks, and everyone’s risks are different. Those of us in a position to make it easier for others have an obligation to do so.”
What would trigger a strike? Fong-Jones suggested that Google would have to cross a red line — launching Dragonfly in China without a proper review of Dragonfly’s privacy implications, for example. “I firmly suggest that my current fellow colleagues think about what they’d do if the red line were crossed and an executive overrode a S&P launch bit, or members of the S&P team indicated that they were coerced into marking it green,” Fong-Jones wrote, referring to the company’s security and privacy teams.
How far away are we from that red line? Gallagher reports that at one point, the Dragonfly team was told to prepare to launch between January and April of next year. Given the current controversy — and the ongoing US trade war with China — that timeline almost certainly has been pushed back. In the meantime, the issue that will define Sundar Pichai’s legacy as CEO has taken a dark new turn. And as of today, his internal opposition is vocal, public, and funded.

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