Senior Google Scientist Quits Over Plans for Censored China Web Search

By Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
September 16, 2018 Updated: October 5, 2018

A senior researcher has quit his job at Google in protest over the company’s leaked plans to create a censored web search app for China, codenamed “Dragonfly.”

Jack Poulson, 32, who worked for the research and machine-intelligence department, left Google on Aug. 31 after discussing his concerns with his bosses for several weeks. He felt that resigning was his “ethical responsibility” to protest “the forfeiture of our public human-rights commitments,” he told The Intercept.

The Chinese communist regime runs the world’s most sophisticated system of internet censorship and requires foreign companies to censor topics it deems “sensitive,” such as democracy, human rights, and persecution of groups like Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners, human rights activists, and others. Companies are also forced to share their data stored in China with the regime.

“Due to my conviction that dissent is fundamental to functioning democracies, I am forced to resign, in order to avoid contributing to, or profiting from, the erosion of protection for dissidents,” Poulson wrote in his resignation letter.

Past Censorship

Google ran a censored version of its search engine in China from 2006 to 2010, when the company backed out. Its stated reason for exiting was a cyber attack originating from China that targeted Google email accounts of dozens of Chinese human-rights activists.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was born in Soviet Russia, said in 2010 he saw “some earmarks of totalitarianism” in China, which was “personally quite troubling” to him, The Wall Street Journal reported. The newspaper cited “people familiar with the discussions” as saying that then-Chief Executive Eric Schmidt and others advocated staying in China.

Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin in Seoul, South Korea
Google co-founder Sergey Brin in Seoul, South Korea, on March 12, 2016. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

China has been listed for decades by watchdogs as one of the worst abusers of human rights. Among other atrocities, the regime has killed hundreds of thousands of prisoners of conscience to sell their organs for transplants, based on an extensive body of research produced since allegations of the crime first surfaced in 2006.

Poulson joined Google in May 2016 and worked on “international query analysis,” which aims to improve the accuracy of Google search systems.

He said he joined viewing Google’s withdrawal from China and Brin’s comments of support for individual liberties as a statement of principle. If Google is betraying such principles, he doesn’t want to “be complicit as a shareholder and citizen of the company,” he said.

While Google was applauded by human-rights advocates for its 2010 action, it might have withdrawn for economic reasons. The company struggled to make inroads in the Chinese market, where the regime supports home-grown companies with top cadre connections at the expense of competitors.

Poulson warned that if Google chooses to cave to Chinese censors again, it may embolden other regimes to push their demands, too.

“I view our intent to capitulate to censorship and surveillance demands in exchange for access to the Chinese market as a forfeiture of our values and governmental negotiating position across the globe,” Poulson wrote. “There is an all-too-real possibility that other nations will attempt to leverage our actions in China in order to demand our compliance with their security demands.”

Google Response

Google reportedly tried to keep its China plans secret to all but a few hundred of its 88,000 employees. Once the info leaked, more than 1,400 employees signed a letter demanding an investigation of “urgent moral and ethical issues” raised by the project. Still, Google has declined to confirm the Dragonfly project, despite multiple media reports confirming its existence through unidentified sources.

Sixteen members of Congress, including Democrats and Republicans, said in a letter to Google they have “serious concerns” about the project. The letter asked if Google would take steps “to ensure that individual Chinese citizens or foreigners living in China, including Americans, will not be surveilled or targeted through Google applications.” The company didn’t immediately respond.

Poulson said about four other employees also quit over Dragonfly.

“It’s incredible how little solidarity there is on this,” he said. “It is my understanding that when you have a serious ethical disagreement with an issue, your proper course of action is to resign.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.