Google employees are demanding greater transparency by their employer along with also confronting management with their ethical concerns about project Dragonfly, a controversial censored search app for the Chinese market.
Employees circulated 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-along with also-file employee representatives, the appointment of ombudspeople, along with also an ethical assessment of Google projects including Dragonfly along with also Maven, Google’s contract with the Pentagon to build AI-assisted drone technology.
“Many of us believe of which Dragonfly poses a threat to freedom of expression along with also political dissent globally, along with also violates our AI principles,” two employees wrote in an email distributing the demand list, which is usually called “Ethics along with also Transparency Code Yellow.”
“nevertheless This specific is usually not about Dragonfly specifically,” the email continued. “While we support along with also will join with concerned Googlers in resisting This specific effort, we need to be clear: Individual employees organizing against the latest dubious project cannot be our only safeguard against unethical decisions. This specific amounts to unsustainable ethics whack-a-mole, along with also assumes employees know about a project to begin with.”
Dragonfly, which the majority of Google employees only learned about when The Intercept reported This specific earlier This specific month, marks the second time This specific year of which leaked information about ongoing projects has prompted a backlash within the company’s rank along with also 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 This specific. A dozen engineers resigned in protest, along with also Google eventually promised not to renew the contract.
Following the uproar, Google published AI Ethics guidelines for the company. The letter currently circulating inside the company, which has so far been signed by over a 1,400 Googlers, argues of which those guidelines are not enough.
“As a company along with also as individuals we have a responsibility to use This specific power to better the globe, not to support social control, violence, along with also oppression,” the letter reads. “What is usually clear is usually of which Ethical Principles on paper are not enough to ensure ethical decision doing. We need transparency, oversight, along with also accountability mechanisms sufficient to allow informed ethical choice along with also deliberation across the company.”
Dragonfly has reignited internal rancor at Google; This specific letter represents different activist groups within the company coalescing to form just one movement around transparency.
“People were like, ‘What? of which’s not how we do things!’ This specific betrays This specific culture of openness along with also transparency they like to pretend we have.”
“People are like, ‘What the hell do we do right now?’ This specific can’t keep happening,” said an anonymous Google developer. “We need something fundamental to change how they do business.”
Dragonfly, which Google has been working on for a little over year, would likely be a search engine for Chinese users of which would likely censor certain terms along with also sources by search results, including Wikipedia along with also some news articles, according to The Intercept. Google has already shown the Chinese government a type 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 along with also spanned over a thousand comments on internal posts, Google employees told BuzzFeed News.
“The Dragonfly conversations are happening inside 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 along with also passion.”
Some of of which frustration is usually coming by the fact of which Dragonfly seems at odds with Google’s stated purpose. “Google’s mission statement literally says, ‘Organize the globe’s information along with also make This specific universally accessible.’ Censorship directly contradicts doing information accessible,” he said. “This specific’s like Google capitulating to an oppressive organization … First This specific was the military industrial complex, right now This specific’s China.”
A few days after the news broke, a Google employee who was born in Beijing along with also has been with the company over a decade took to an internal forum to warn his colleagues about the potential consequences of the project. inside the post, which was shared anonymously with BuzzFeed News, he said of which 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 of which China uses technology to surveil along with also control its citizens, along with also argued of which — given the immense popularity of Chinese search engine Baidu — Chinese companies of which would likely entertain partnering with Google have potentially nefarious reasons.
“A few years ago, This specific was a place you felt proud to be working at. … The series of incidents inside the last few years have made This specific much harder to hold on to of which feeling.”
“What do they gain by allowing us back in? You can be sure This specific is usually not about usability or benefiting to the people,” he wrote. “I am not of which optimistic Google as a tech company somehow can facilitate political change in China.”
Not everyone at Google agrees. “Building a censored search engine could benefit the population of China,” said Allison Day, a program manager at Google who’s been with the company for more than three years. “of which could give people there access to a lot more information.”
Day said the news of which Google was working on such a project didn’t shock her. “I can see the bottom line for any corporation is usually growth, along with also [China] represented a gigantic market,” she said. “The ‘Don’t be Evil’ slogan or whatever is usually, you know… This specific’s not a farce, I wouldn’t go so far as to say of which. nevertheless This specific is usually a giant corporation, along with also its bottom line is usually to make money.”
Google CEO Sundar Pichai has repeatedly expressed an interest inside the company doing a return to China, which This specific pulled out of for political reasons in 2010. Pichai’s apparent decision to return, which was not addressed company-wide before Thursday, has caused some employees to consider leaving the company altogether.
“There are questions about how [Dragonfly] is usually implemented of which could make This specific less concerning, or much more concerning,” the second anonymous Google employee said. “of which will continue to be on my mind, along with also the mind of various other Googlers deciding whether to stay.”
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 This specific, “This specific seems like the lessons we thought had been learned by Maven were not learned inside the way we thought.”
Two Google employees who were working on Dragonfly were so disturbed by the secrecy of which they quit the team over This specific. 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 specific is usually in large part a reason why … I’ve had meeting with my VP about the project before leaving. This specific was short meeting for me, because my VP refused to provide any information without the basically agreeing to a verbal NDA … of which was enough for me to fuck off by of which org.”
In a second post also obtained by BuzzFeed News, of which employee’s colleague announced of which he was planning to leave Google altogether, in part because he had been asked to keep Dragonfly secret — not just by the public, nevertheless also by his coworkers.
“The part of which affected me the most was not the details of the project themselves, nevertheless the secrecy around This specific. Part of why I joined Google full-time was because of the open culture I had experienced during my internships,” This specific employee, whose post was shared anonymously, wrote. “nevertheless with DragonFly, all of This specific was gone.”
Google has not responded to specific questions about Dragonfly by 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 of which, employees hadn’t “heard a peep,” according to the anonymous Google developer.
Even more upsetting to some employees is usually the fact of which 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 usually 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, along with also of which galvanized a ton of people. People were like ‘What? of which’s not how we do things!’ This specific betrays This specific culture of openness along with also transparency they like to pretend we have,” the anonymous Google developer said.
along with also following the leak, This specific’s become apparent of which some Google employees were unaware of which their work was being used for Dragonfly, or of which the project even existed.
“of which’s a special kind of betrayal along with also exploitation of an employee,” he said.
Compared to their colleagues elsewhere inside the tech industry, Google employees have unusually high expectations for transparency, in large part because the company tells them to expect This specific.
“They talk along with also act like, ‘Once you’re at Google, you can look up the code anywhere inside the code base along with also see for yourself.’ ‘We pride ourselves on having an open along with also transparent culture,’” said the anonymous Google developer. “There [are] definitely employees at the company who are very frustrated because of which’s clearly not true.”
“Part of why I joined Google full-time was because of the open culture. … nevertheless with DragonFly, all of This specific was gone.”
The second anonymous employee echoed those thoughts. “Google talks about people being able to bring their whole self to work, along with also being able to have open along with also transparent conversations, along with also a level of respect between rank along with also file Googlers along with also decision makers,” she said. “I feel like a lot of of which is usually weaker right now than This specific used to be.”
Internal debates over the ethics of technologies like Maven along with also Dragonfly are not the only disagreements of which have sown discord between Google management along with also the rank along with also file inside the past few years. Googlers have been publicly critical of how the company handled backlash over former Google engineer James Damore’s sexist manifesto of which circulated widely throughout the company, in which he claimed there are biological reasons of which men are better engineers than women.
Damore was fired, nevertheless some Google employees said his supporters targeted them, along with also of which human resources at the company scrutinized along with also even unfairly penalized them for doing anti-racist statements.
The mishandling of the Damore incident, followed by the Project Maven debacle along with also right now Dragonfly, “seems like a pattern,” said the second anonymous Google employee.
“A few years ago, This specific was a place you felt proud to be working at, proud of coworkers, proud of what we’re contributing to the globe. The series of incidents inside the last few years have made This specific much harder to hold on to of which feeling.”
Google employees aren’t the only tech workers who’ve been grappling with their responsibility for the tools they’re building, along with also talking about consolidating power inside the workplace as a result. Following Google employees’ success with Maven, employees at Microsoft, Amazon, along with also Salesforce petitioned executives to cancel contracts with Immigration along with also Customs Enforcement (ICE) along with also Customs along with also Border Protection (CBP), 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 along with also has been a vocal advocate around diversity along with also inclusion issues, sees Google employees as leading the way. “When people see successful, worker-organized efforts, This specific 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, along with also Tech Workers Coalition, a growing labor advocacy group. (Fong-Jones does not represent Google.)
along with also inside Google, some employees are taking more of an interest in “having structures along with also ownership around the work of the company,” which the second anonymous employee said would likely be Great for morale along with also rebuilding trust.
“I’m definitely feeling pushed to take more of an interest in of which,” the second anonymous employee said. “I feel like a lot of people inside the company are.”
“There’s been a common theme in a lot of recent controversies at tech companies: A government contract is usually taken or considered … along with also a large swathe of the company only finds out about This specific via leaks,” Miles Brundage, an artificial intelligence policy researcher recently hired by OpenAI, told BuzzFeed News. “If This specific sort of thing keeps happening often enough (along with also maybe Maven along with also Dragonfly is usually 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 doing significant concessions to employees, nevertheless the actions of Google employees along with also those at various other companies have forever disturbed the illusion of a wholly complacent tech workforce sated by free beer along with also snacks.
“Tech workers starting to realize what’s going on,” the anonymous Google developer said. “Even though a lot of us have actually Great jobs, we can see of which the difference between us along with also the leadership is usually still astronomical. The vision they have for the future is usually not our vision.”
Read the full Google employee letter below.
Sign This specific letter
To make ethical choices, Googlers need to know what we’re building. Right 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 brand-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 usually reported to be an effort to provide search along with also personalized mobile news to China, in compliance with Chinese government censorship along with also 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 along with also Google’s return to China raise urgent moral along with also ethical issues, the substance of which we are discussing elsewhere.
Here we address an underlying structural problem: currently we do not contain the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, along with also our employment. of which the decision to build dragonfly was made in secret, along with also progressed even with the AI Principles in place, makes clear of which the Principles alone are not enough. We urgently need more transparency, a seat at the table, along with also a commitment to clear along with also open processes. Google employees need to know what we’re building.
inside the face of these significant issues, we, the undersigned, are calling for a Code Yellow addressing Ethics along with also Transparency, asking leadership to work with employees to implement concrete transparency along with also oversight process, including the following:
An ethics review structure of which includes rank along with also 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; along with also
The publication of “ethical test cases”; an ethical assessment of Dragonfly, Maven, along with also Airgap GCP with respect to the AI principles; along with also regular, official, internally visible communication along with also assessments regarding any brand-new areas of substantial ethical concern,
(1) A Code Yellow is usually a standardized process in Engineering for addressing brand-new or long-simmering business-critical problems of which 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, along with also weekly (or more frequent) updates to any interested parties.