I grew up in a country where using Google was an act of defiance. Just to look something up on my preferred search engine involved downloading several VPNs, switching back and forth to get a slow connection that was almost not even worth it. Even then, my search results were carefully combed through, curated to present a worldview that was deemed acceptable for me to obtain. In an age where almost all the information we seek out is on the internet it’s hard to imagine. Yet this is the reality for the 1.3 billion people living in China, a country which is a fast-urbanising, almost fully developed country with metropolises which are some of the most bustling in the world.
So, at a first glance Google’s newly announced plan for ‘Project Dragonfly’ – a version of its search engine deemed suitable for Chinese consumership – seems like a victory. A new (legal) avenue to source information surely implies this is all changing…right? Wrong, actually. Very wrong. Google would be complying with the Chinese government’s incredibly oppressive censorship laws thus forbidding searches denouncing communism and discussing events such as the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Blacklisted terms also include ‘search terms related to human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest’. While this level of censorship is clearly wrong and a blatant violation of free speech, it would actually be more than morally wrong. It could be dangerous too.
In the West, we already hear stories of how using technology can give our governments access to our personal information; the ‘FBI man’ meme is ever-strong in the United States. This would become a scary reality for China. Like most people around the world, the Chinese are very much tied to their smartphones; this includes internet searches. Project Dragonfly would enable the Chinese government to access personal information via mobile searches. Using Google search apps in China would provide the government with mobile phone numbers as well as internet search history. Any queries would no longer be anonymous, leading to potential interrogation and even detention for those who dare look up blacklisted search terms.
Google has rightfully come under fire from organisations such as Amnesty International for what are unmistakably human rights violations – even the Trump administration has spoken out against the Project. Several of Google’s scientists have resigned their positions in protest of the company’s gross ethical misconduct. Furthermore, Google is even a member of the Global Network Initiative, an organisation dedicated to ensuring that users of these networks have both freedom of expression and privacy – the two things Project Dragonfly will strip from the Chinese populace.
Google should have stood its ground, by the principles it has operated on since its inception, the principles to which they stayed true when initially pulling out of China in 2010 in refusal to comply with their policies. They must be held accountable for their aiding the breaching of basic human rights.