Google employees are demanding greater transparency from their employer and confronting management with their ethical concerns about a project named Dragonfly, a controversial censored search app for the Chinese market.
Employees are circulating a list of demands for the company in a letter obtained by BuzzFeed News (posted in full, below), calling for an ethics review structure with rank-and-file employee representatives, the appointment of ombudspeople, and an ethical assessment of Google projects including Dragonfly and Maven, Google’s contract with the Pentagon to build AI-assisted drone technology.
“Many of us believe that Dragonfly poses a threat to freedom of expression and political dissent globally, and violates our AI principles," two employees wrote in an email distributing the demand list.
"But this is not about Dragonfly specifically," the email continues. "While we support and will join with concerned Googlers in resisting this effort, we need to be clear: Individual employees organizing against the latest dubious project cannot be our only safeguard against unethical decisions. This amounts to unsustainable ethics whack-a-mole, and assumes employees know about a project to begin with.”
Dragonfly, which the majority of Google employees only learned about when the Intercept reported it earlier this month, marks the second time this year that leaked information about ongoing projects has prompted a backlash within the company’s rank and file. After Google’s contract with the Pentagon’s Project Maven became public in March, over 4,000 employees signed a petition asking the company to cancel it. A dozen engineers resigned in protest, and Google eventually promised not to renew the contract.
Following that uproar, Google published AI ethics guidelines for the company. The letter about Dragonfly that's currently circulating inside the company, which has so far been signed by over a 1,400 Googlers, argues that those guidelines are not enough.
"As a company and as individuals we have a responsibility to use this power to better the world, not to support social control, violence, and oppression," the letter reads. "What is clear is that Ethical Principles on paper are not enough to ensure ethical decision making. We need transparency, oversight, and accountability mechanisms sufficient to allow informed ethical choice and deliberation across the company."
Dragonfly has reignited internal rancor at Google; this letter represents different activist groups within the company coalescing to form a single movement around transparency.
“People are like, ‘What the hell do we do now?’ This can’t keep happening,” said an anonymous Google developer. “We need something fundamental to change how they do business.”
A debate over ethics
Dragonfly, which Google has been working on for a little over year, would be a search engine for Chinese users that would censor certain terms and sources from search results, including Wikipedia and some news articles, according to the Intercept. Google has already shown the Chinese government a version of the Android app, which could be launched within six to nine months, the report says.
The debate over the ethics of building such a tool has lasted over two weeks and spanned over a thousand comments on internal posts, Google employees told BuzzFeed News.
“The Dragonfly conversations are happening in the same spaces or lists where the Maven conversations happened; they’re being repurposed,” a second anonymous employee said. “There’s a lot of anger and passion.”
Some of that frustration is coming from the fact that Dragonfly seems at odds with Google’s stated purpose. “Google’s mission statement literally says, ‘Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.’ Censorship directly contradicts making information accessible,” he said. “It’s like Google capitulating to an oppressive organization … First it was the military industrial complex, now it’s China.”
A few days after the news broke, a Google employee who was born in Beijing and has been with the company over a decade took to an internal forum to warn his colleagues about the potential consequences of the project. In the post, which was shared anonymously with BuzzFeed News, he said that employees who think Google could fight censorship by building a presence in China are being naive.
The employee, who worked for Google in China in 2006, said that China uses technology to surveil and control its citizens, and argued that — given the immense popularity of Chinese search engine Baidu — Chinese companies that would entertain partnering with Google have potentially nefarious reasons.
“What do they gain by allowing us back in? You can be sure it is not about usability or benefiting to the people,” he wrote. “I am not that optimistic Google as a tech company somehow can facilitate political change in China.”
Allison Day, a program manager at Google who’s been with the company for more than three years. said the news that Google was working on such a project didn’t shock her. “I can see the bottom line for any corporation is growth, and [China] represented a gigantic market,” she said. “The ‘Don’t be Evil’ slogan, you know… It’s not a farce. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. But it is a giant corporation, and its bottom line is to make money.”
Google CEO Sundar Pichai has repeatedly expressed an interest in the company making a return to China, which it pulled out of for political reasons in 2010. Pichai’s apparent decision to return, which was not addressed companywide before Thursday, has caused some employees to consider leaving the company altogether.
“There are questions about how [Dragonfly] is implemented that could make it less concerning, or much more concerning,” the second anonymous Google employee said. “That will continue to be on my mind, and the mind of other Googlers deciding whether to stay.”
Keeping Dragonfly secret
Much of the current ire toward Google leadership over Dragonfly has just as much to do with the secrecy surrounding the project as with ethics of the project itself. As the second anonymous Google employee put it, “It seems like the lessons we thought had been learned from Maven were not learned in the way we thought.”
Two Google employees who were working on Dragonfly were so disturbed by the secrecy that they quit the team over it. Shortly after the Dragonfly news broke, a Swiss-based engineer working on anti-abuse issues wrote in a post obtained by BuzzFeed News, “People who I’ve worked with closely might have noticed I transferred out of the Abuse/Identity team 2 weeks ago. This is in large part a reason why … I’ve had a meeting with my VP about the project before leaving. This was a short meeting for me, because my VP refused to provide any information without the basically agreeing to a verbal NDA ... That was enough for me to fuck off from that org.”
In a second post also obtained by BuzzFeed News, that employee’s colleague announced that he was planning to leave Google altogether, in part because he had been asked to keep Dragonfly secret — not just from the public, but also from his coworkers.
“The part that affected me the most was not the details of the project themselves, but the secrecy around it. Part of why I joined Google full-time was because of the open culture I had experienced during my internships,” this employee, whose post was shared anonymously, wrote. “But with DragonFly, all of this was gone.”
Google has not responded to specific questions about Dragonfly from the Intercept, nor to Bloomberg, nor to BuzzFeed News, only saying in a statement, “We don’t comment on speculation about future plans.” Two weeks passed before today’s all-hands meeting offered employees a chance to ask questions. Prior to that, employees hadn’t “heard a peep,” according to the anonymous Google developer.
Even more upsetting to some employees is the fact that the company has blocked off internal access to Dragonfly’s code. Managers also shut down access to certain documents pertaining to the project, according to the Intercept. (Google is famous for giving “engineers access to almost our entire code base on day one,” which makes the lockdown more alarming to them.)
“They did the same thing with Maven, and that galvanized a ton of people. People were like ‘What? That’s not how we do things!’ It betrays this culture of openness and transparency they like to pretend we have,” the anonymous Google developer said.
And following the leak, it’s become apparent that some Google employees were unaware that their work was being used for Dragonfly, or that the project even existed.
“That’s a special kind of betrayal and exploitation of an employee,” he said.
Erosion of trust
“They talk and act like, ‘Once you’re at Google, you can look up the code anywhere in the code base and see for yourself.’ ‘We pride ourselves on having an open and transparent culture,’” said the anonymous Google developer. “There [are] definitely employees at the company who are very frustrated because that’s clearly not true.”
The second anonymous employee echoed those thoughts. “Google talks about people being able to bring their whole self to work, and being able to have open and transparent conversations, and a level of respect between rank and file Googlers and decision makers,” she said. “I feel like a lot of that is weaker now than it used to be.”
Internal debates over the ethics of technologies like Maven and Dragonfly are not the only disagreements that have sown discord between Google management and the rank and file in the past few years. Googlers were publicly critical of how the company handled backlash over former Google engineer James Damore’s sexist manifesto that circulated widely throughout the company, in which he claimed there are biological reasons that men are better engineers than women.
Damore was fired, but some Google employees said his supporters targeted them, and that human resources at the company scrutinized and even unfairly penalized them for making anti-racist statements.
The mishandling of the Damore incident, followed by the Project Maven debacle and now Dragonfly, “seems like a pattern,” said the second anonymous Google employee.
“A few years ago, it was a place you felt proud to be working at, proud of coworkers, proud of what we’re contributing to the world. The series of incidents in the last few years have made it much harder to hold on to that feeling.”
A workers’ movement in tech
Google employees aren’t the only tech workers who’ve been grappling with their responsibility for the tools they’re building, and talking about consolidating power in the workplace as a result. Following Google employees’ success with Maven, employees at Microsoft, Amazon, and Salesforce petitioned executives to cancel contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, government agencies some employees are opposed to working with because of the forced separation of immigrant families happening at the US–Mexico border. Together, these efforts comprise a veritable explosion of employee activism among white-collar tech workers.
Liz Fong-Jones, a Google employee who’s been with the company for over a decade and has been a vocal advocate around diversity and inclusion issues, sees Google employees as leading the way. “When people see successful, worker-organized efforts, it makes them more likely to attempt to organize within their own companies,” she said. She also credited organizations like Coworker.org, which has been hosting know-your-rights workshops for Bay Area tech workers, and Tech Workers Coalition, a growing labor advocacy group. (Fong-Jones does not speak on behalf of Google.)
And inside Google, some employees are taking more of an interest in “having structures and ownership around the work of the company,” which the second anonymous employee said would be good for morale and rebuilding trust.
“I’m definitely feeling pushed to take more of an interest in that,” the second anonymous employee said. “I feel like a lot of people in the company are.”
“There's been a common theme in a lot of recent controversies at tech companies: A government contract is taken or considered … and a large swath of the company only finds out about it via leaks,” Miles Brundage, an artificial intelligence policy researcher recently hired by OpenAI, told BuzzFeed News. “If this sort of thing keeps happening often enough (and maybe Maven and Dragonfly is enough), at some point workers are going to want to solve the higher level problem of transparency, instead of constantly reacting to the latest leaked project.”
Google may yet be able to quash future product leaks by making significant concessions to employees, but the actions of Google employees and those at other companies have forever disturbed the illusion of a wholly complacent tech workforce sated by free beer and snacks.
“Tech workers starting to realize what’s going on,” the anonymous Google developer said. “Even though a lot of us have really good jobs, we can see that the difference between us and the leadership is still astronomical. The vision they have for the future is not our vision.”
Read the full Google employee letter below.
Sign this letter
To make ethical choices, Googlers need to know what we’re building. Right now we don't. So we, the undersigned, are calling for a Code Yellow(1) on Ethics & Transparency at Google.
Our industry has entered a new era of ethical responsibility: the choices we make matter on a global scale. Yet most of us only learned about Project Dragonfly through news reports in early August. Dragonfly is reported to be an effort to provide search and personalized mobile news to China, in compliance with Chinese government censorship and surveillance requirements. Eight year ago, after Google Pulled censored websearch out of China, Sergey Brin explained the decision, saying: “In some aspects of [government] policy, particularly with respect to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see some earmarks of totalitarianism.” Dragonfly and Google’s return to China raise urgent moral and ethical issues, the substance of which we are discussing elsewhere.
Here we address an underlying structural problem: 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 even with the AI 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.
In the face of these significant issues, we, the undersigned, are calling for a Code Yellow addressing Ethics and Transparency, asking leadership to work with employees to implement concrete transparency and oversight process, including the following:
An ethics review structure that includes rank and file employee representatives
The appointment of ombudspeople with meaningful employee input into their selection
A clear plan for transparency sufficient to enable Googlers an individual ethical choice about what they work on; and
The publication of “ethical test cases”; an ethical assessment of Dragonfly, Maven, and Airgap GCP with respect to the AI principles; and regular, official, internally visible communication and assessments regarding any new areas of substantial ethical concern,
(1) A Code Yellow is a standardized process in Engineering for addressing new or long-simmering business-critical problems that span multiple groups. A Code Yellow includes: an executive responsible for the process, an overall owner, a clear list of objectives to be resolved before closing the Code Yellow, and weekly (or more frequent) updates to any interested parties.
This story has been updated for clarity.