How Google handled plans for censored search in China
Days after Google employees published an open letter calling for the company to cancel its controversial efforts to create a censored search engine in China, some employees are talking about creating a “strike fund” to support workers who decide to strike or resign in protest.
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On Thursday, The Intercept reported new details about how Google handled the project, internally named Project Dragonfly. The report said that Google bypassed security and privacy staffers on certain decisions, and did invite some of them to a Project Dragonfly-related meeting with the company’s senior leadership.
In the wake of that report, Google employee and inclusion activist Liz Fong Jones tweeted that she would match $100,000 in pledged donations to a fund to support employees who refuse to work in protest.
Typically, strike funds are created by unions to make payments for workers on strike to help them meet their basic needs while they’re not receiving paychecks from their companies. Google does not have currently have a union. However, some employees have held informal talks about the idea, according to one person familiar with the situation.
Fong Jones says that 19 current and two former employees had pledged $115,000 to the potential fund in the first three hours. Here’s her original thread about the idea:
In her tweets, she suggested working with the Tech Workers Coalition, a community organizing group, to set up a fund. The organization declined to comment.
Fong Jones notes that pledges aren’t binding and that the next steps are to work with legal counsel and labor organizers to more formally set a fund up. But the fact that the idea has gained traction so quickly is another sign of the past year’s increasing wave of tech resistance, where workers have publicly protested about multiple workplace issues, including diversity, harassment, and controversial company business contracts.
Jack Poulson, a former scientist in Google’s research and machine intelligence department who resigned over his concerns about Project Dragonfly in August, pledged to contribute $10,000 to a potential fund.
“Tech workers now realize there is power in organizing,” he tells CNBC. “I am proud to put my personal savings towards an effort to bring accountability to Google leadership.”
Current employee Irene Knapp, who previously made a public statement criticizing Google’s diversity efforts at Alphabet’s shareholder meeting earlier this year, also contributed to the fund.
“I’m proud to support this fund, it’s a great step forward,” Knapp says. “Everyone participating in labor efforts faces personal risks, and everyone’s risks are different. Those of us in a position to make it easier for others have an obligation to do so.”
Brishen Rogers, an associate professor at Temple University who specializes in the relationship between labor and technological development points out that contributions to labor organizations are generally not deductible as charitable contributions, as Fong Jones suggested might be possible in this case, though said that there may be other ways to set it up.
Fong Jones has previously posted publicly about her plans to resign from Google in coming months if the company does not commit to putting an employee representative on its board of directors.
A designated board seat was one of the five demands from the organizers of a massive November walk-out, which was held to protest how Google has reportedly handled reports of sexual harassment and other impropriety.
The Intercept first reported details about the censored search project in August. The app would reportedly comply with demands from the Chinese government to remove content ruled sensitive and link users’ searches to their personal phone numbers.
Since then, human rights groups, U.S. politicians, and Google employees have raised concerns around privacy and human rights. As of Thursday afternoon, 528 Google employees had publicly signed the open letter calling for the company to withdraw.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai is expected to testify in Congress on Dec. 5 to discuss transparency and bias and members of Congress will likely also ask about Google’s plans in China, as they have in past government hearings.
Pichai has previously responded by saying publicly that the company is “very early ” in its plans but that its experiments found that it could “serve well over 99 percent” of search queries in China.
A Google spokesperson declined to comment on the burgeoning strike fund, but said in response to The Intercept’s reporting about privacy and security teams being shut out of plans that the company consulted many engineers while exploring Project Dragonfly.
“This is an exploratory project and no decision has been made about whether we could or would launch,” the spokesperson said. “As we’ve explored the project, many privacy and security engineers have been consulted, as they always are. For any product, final launch is contingent on a full, final privacy review but we’ve never gotten to that point in development. Privacy reviews at Google are non-negotiable and we never short circuit the process.”
A current employee who says she worked on security and privacy for Dragonfly also publicly refuted characterizations of the Intercept story: