View profile

The dueling Dragonfly petitions inside Google

Revue
 
I had a great day in Washington, DC, taking meetings with Congressional staffers, tech platforms, and
 
November 28 · Issue #254 · View online
The Interface
I had a great day in Washington, DC, taking meetings with Congressional staffers, tech platforms, and colleagues. I also had working Wi-Fi and a working newsletter provider. So thank you for your understanding these past two days, and please enjoy an early newsletter this time around.
In August, as concerns about Google’s effort to build a censored search engine for China came to the fore, I wondered whether it wouldn’t cause a crisis of morale at the company. At the time, 1,400 employees had signed an internal petition demanding more information about the project. And just this week, a (smaller) group posted on Medium urging Google to abandon the project.
“Dragonfly would also enable censorship and government-directed disinformation, and destabilize the ground truth on which popular deliberation and dissent rely,” the employees write. “Given the Chinese government’s reported suppression of dissident voices, such controls would likely be used to silence marginalized people, and favor information that promotes government interests.”
As of today, more than 400 employees had signed their name to the letter — up from 11 just yesterday. The dominant story around Dragonfly to date has been around employees’ resistance to the search engine. While some employees were said to favor returning to China, we rarely heard from them — aside from top executives fending off hostile questions at weekly all-hands meetings.
But now we have. Today TechCrunch posted a letter from Google employees taking the opposite position. And more than 500 people have signed it to date, Jon Russell and Taylor Hatmaker report. The letter reads in part:
Dragonfly still faces many difficulties and uncertainties, which can only be resolved by continuing efforts. The regulation requirements set by the Chinese government (like censorship) makes Dragonfly a challenging project. If we are not careful enough, the project can end up doing more harm than good. In any case, only with continuing efforts on Dragonfly can we learn how different approaches may work out in China, and find out if there is a way that is good for both the Chinese users and Google. Even if we fail, the findings can still be useful for bringing other services to China.
I’m going to venture to say this letter was written primarily by someone with an engineering background. It’s notable primarily for how dispassionate it is — particularly in comparison with the letter written by employees who oppose Dragonfly. They appeal to executives’ sense of humanity — while their pro-Dragonfly counterparts simply cite the morally neutral company mission to organize the world’s information and make it useful.
The Chinese government has made its own effort to organize the world’s information, of course, and it often deploys that information against its citizens in deeply dystopian ways. It’s one of the reasons I include so many links about China’s experiments with social credit, facial recognition, and other data-driven surveillance tools. I look at China and see an approach to “organizing the world’s information” that, left unchecked, makes all of us less free. And the Googlers writing in favor of Dragonfly, with what an only be called naivete, sidestep the issue entirely.
In August, I wondered how Sundar Pichai felt about the issue — and about the internal conflict roiling his company. Since then, he’s spoken in support of Dragonfly. And now that he has, that conflict has become more visible.
Pichai will get a chance to address these and other issues in December, when he will testify before the House Judiciary Committee. It will be a wide-ranging conversation, Tony Romm reports:
For Pichai, the hearing threatens to be a long wide-ranging review of Google’s business practices at a perilous political moment for the tech giant. Its closest peers, Facebook and Twitter, previously dispatched their top executives to address lawmakers’ questions — a session in the Senate in September that Pichai and Larry Page, the leader of Google parent Alphabet, opted at the time to skip. That decision left Democrats and Republicans around the Capitol frustrated and spoiling for a fight.
Since then, Google has faced immense criticism for its handling of a bug that may have exposed the personal data of hundreds of thousands of its users on Google+, its social network. The company discovered the incident in March but only revealed it in October.
I suspect very few representatives will be talking about Google+ come December. And I suspect lots of them will have questions about Dragonfly. In the meantime, there’s a rift in Google that goes to the heart of what company it wants to be — and however Pichai proceeds will define his legacy, and perhaps Google’s as well.

Democracy
Regulator stays mum on Facebook investigation
Former FTC official says Facebook representative made false statements to international leaders about how the company handles personal data
Hyperpartisan Facebook groups are the next big challenge for fact-checkers
House Committee Reviewing Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey's Testimony For False Statements
Another Net Neutrality Day of Action Draws Fewer Big Names
Silicon Valley’s Rep. Ro Khanna talks tech regulation on The Vergecast
Elsewhere
Facebook, Twitter crack down on AI babysitter-rating service
Steemit is laying off close to 70% of team to cut operating costs as cryptocurrency prices drop
Young Artists and Producers Embrace Micro-Monetizing
Scoop: Ex-Snap exec Imran Khan raises $17.5 million for new startup
Launches
YouTube to Make Originals Available for Ad-Supported Free Viewing
Twitter has banned misgendering or ‘deadnaming’ transgender people
Connecting People to Local News and Their Communities
Takes
It’s time for Silicon Valley to outgrow its Sheryl Sandbergs
How to Survive the Next Era of Tech (Slow Down and Be Mindful)
Fox News Isn't A Normal Media Company. We Have To Stop Treating It Like One.
And finally ...
The big cow has inspired a lot of hope and joy
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and big-ass cows: casey@theverge.com.
Did you enjoy this issue?
If you don't want these updates anymore, please unsubscribe here
If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here
Powered by Revue