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Business trends

Google staff protest return to China on Beijing's terms

Internal letter cites 'moral issues' in bowing to censorship demands

The Google brand logo outside its office in Beijing, where the American company is said to be bowing to Chinese demands.    © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Employees of Google have launched an internal protest against the management's lack of transparency on a reported plan to restart search engine operations in China, media reported Thursday.

Employees have circulated a letter on Google's internal communications system over the leaked plan, known as Dragonfly, which would create a censored mobile app version of its search engine to comply with Chinese law.

"Our industry has entered a new era of ethical responsibility: The choices we make matter on a global scale," said the letter, which was circulated on the internet. It added: "Dragonfly and Google’s return to China raise urgent moral and ethical issues."

"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," the statement read.

The document has been signed by about 1,000 employees, and the company is expected to be pressed on Dragonfly at a weekly staff meeting on Thursday, according to The New York Times, which first reported the letter.

Google did not immediately respond to a Nikkei Asian Review request for comment.

The secretive Dragonfly project, first revealed by online investigative news site the Intercept, would blacklist "sensitive queries," including any about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, as well as unapproved questions about the Chinese Communist Party leadership.

Google employees aren't the only ones to express concern about the plan. Shortly after the first media reports surfaced about Dragonfly early this month, a group of U.S. lawmakers led by an outspoken China critic, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, sent a letter to CEO Sundar Pichai, calling the plan "deeply troubling" and at risk of making the company "complicit in human rights abuses."

Google pulled out of China in 2010. After uncovering evidence of a cyberattack against the Gmail accounts of activists for human rights in China, the company promised to stop censoring search results. Beijing responded by insisting that self-censorship is "a nonnegotiable legal requirement," Google stated on its website at the time.  

"It is a coup for the Chinese government and Communist Party to force Google -- the biggest search engine in the world -- to comply with their onerous censorship requirements, and sets a worrying precedent for other companies seeking to do business in China without compromising their core values," the senators' letter read.

The senators' letter concluded by outlining a number of questions for Google, and called on the company to explain "how this reported development can be reconciled with Google's unofficial motto, 'Don't be evil.'"

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