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Free Expression, Government Surveillance

Google: Don’t Bow to China’s Censorship Regime

Today, the Center for Democracy & Technology joined Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and eleven other civil society groups in calling on Google to not offer a censored search engine app to users in China. We did this after careful consideration, based on our conclusion that offering such a service would make Google a participant in a vast censorship regime.

Early this month, an article in The Intercept, citing leaked Google documents, disclosed that in a project code-named “Dragonfly,” Google was considering the development of a new mobile search app that would meet China’s censorship rules. According to The Intercept, Google’s censored search app would comply with those rules by returning search results that do not include links to documents on websites such as the BBC and Wikipedia, which are banned in China. It would also return no results at all when people search for “sensitive” terms. China censors references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, “anticommunism,” and “dissidents,” according to The Intercept. Instead of returning results, a disclaimer would pop up indicating that “some results may have been removed due to statutory requirements.” Hundreds of Google employees responded to the article by signing a letter calling for more transparency and indicating that the plan to offer censored search in China would raise urgent moral and ethical issues.

Between 2006 and 2010, Google offered a censored version of its search engine in China. It pulled out in March 2010 because of China’s increasing censorship demands, and because it was able to track to China efforts to hack into Google’s network and the networks of more than 20 other U.S. companies. Since that time, China’s “Great Firewall” has only become more oppressive, extending its censorship and surveillance of internet users. Most recently, China enacted a Cybersecurity Law that requires companies that provide services to users in China to store data in China, where it will be more readily available to the government. It also is building a system of “social credit” that will penalize Chinese who act against the interests of the state – perhaps, in the future, by searching for a “sensitive” term using the Google app.

While we’re aware that other American technology companies operate in China, none of them would have to make such major changes to their products and services or become so deeply emmeshed in China’s censorship regime. In these circumstances, we believe that the offer of a censored search app is inconsistent with the commitments Google has made and with the initiatives it has taken to protect human rights. Google has been the industry leader in company transparency reports that detail information about the surveillance and takedown demands it receives from governments around the world. It helped lead the effort in the United States to require that law enforcement officials obtain a warrant in order to gain access to email and other communications content.

Along with CDT, Google was a founding member of the Global Network Initiative (“GNI”), a multi-stakeholder organization that helps companies uphold the privacy and free expression rights of its users. Google sponsors technology fellows to work in a number of NGOs dedicated to protecting civil liberties, civil rights, and human rights. It was the original sponsor of RightsCon, which has grown into perhaps the premier gathering place for digital rights activists around the globe. A record like this should not be sullied by bowing to the oppressive censorship demands of China.

When it signed onto the GNI Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy, Google agreed that it would “respect and work to protect the freedom of expression of [its] users by seeking to avoid or minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression, including restrictions on the information available to users….” Sometimes the only way to abide by that commitment is to refrain from offering altogether a service in a rights-challenged jurisdiction. So it is with search in China: the only way to avoid the impact of the government’s restrictions on freedom of expression is to avoid offering search in China. We urge Google to refrain from doing so.