Project Dragonfly isn’t sitting very well with some Google employees

Google / Tech
Project Dragonfly

Google employees are now demanding an ethics review of the company and an ethical assessment of all of Google’s projects.

It was just a few weeks ago that Google’s Project Dragonfly was leaked and now some Google employees are concerned about the company’s secret project. Project Dragonfly is a specialized version of Google built specifically for the Chinese market. The government in China has strict rules about internet access and Google is building Dragonfly around those rules.

According to a letter published by Buzzfeed, Google employees are now demanding an ethics review of the company and an ethical assessment of all of Google’s projects. The letter is being circulated throughout Google’s employee infrastructure.

“Many of us believe that Dragonfly poses a threat to freedom of expression and political dissent globally, and violates our AI principles,” two employees wrote in an email distributing the demand list.

“But this is not about Dragonfly specifically,” the email continues. “While we support and will join with concerned Googlers in resisting this effort, we need to be clear: Individual employees organizing against the latest dubious project cannot be our only safeguard against unethical decisions. This amounts to unsustainable ethics whack-a-mole, and assumes employees know about a project, to begin with.”

Google employees are not only questioning the company’s ethics with Project Dragonfly but they’re also questioning why the company kept the project a secret from even most employees.

“As a company and as individuals we have a responsibility to use this power to better the world, not to support social control, violence, and oppression,” the letter reads. “What is clear is that Ethical Principles on paper are not enough to ensure ethical decision making. We need transparency, oversight, and accountability mechanisms sufficient to allow informed ethical choice and deliberation across the company.”

The full letter, obtained by Buzzfeed, is quoted below.

Sign this letter

To make ethical choices, Googlers need to know what we’re building. 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 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 reported to be an effort to provide search and personalized mobile news to China, in compliance with Chinese government censorship and 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 and Google’s return to China raise urgent moral and ethical issues, the substance of which we are discussing elsewhere.

Here we address an underlying structural problem: currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment. That the decision to build dragonfly was made in secret, and progressed even with the AI Principles in place, makes clear that the principles alone are not enough. 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.

In the face of these significant issues, we, the undersigned, are calling for a Code Yellow addressing Ethics and Transparency, asking leadership to work with employees to implement concrete transparency and oversight process, including the following:

An ethics review structure that includes rank and 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; and

The publication of “ethical test cases”; an ethical assessment of Dragonfly, Maven, and Airgap GCP with respect to the AI principles; and regular, official, internally visible communication and assessments regarding any new areas of substantial ethical concern,

Signed,

(1) A Code Yellow is a standardized process in Engineering for addressing new or long-simmering business-critical problems that 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, and weekly (or more frequent) updates to any interested parties.

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  Source: Buzzfeed
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