WITNESS joins international call to Google to end Project Dragonfly

Today, WITNESS joins over 60 international human rights organizations and 10 leading figures in the digital and human rights fields to call for Google to respect human rights in China. WITNESS added our voices to a letter led by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which calls on Google to “[drop] Project Dragonfly and any plans to launch a censored search app in China, and to re-affirm the company’s 2010 commitment that it won’t provide censored search services in the country.”

WITNESS stands by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. As we said recently in a submission to the United Nations, “companies must make a commitment to adhere to international human rights standards, including freedom of expression, even when it affects their financial bottom line or requires them to affirmatively defend attacks on rights by States.” And, even when it means they cannot enter a new market. This is especially true in the case of international technology platforms like Google, which have an enormous impact on freedom of expression, privacy, and other human rights. Entering a market cannot be an excuse for participating in the violation of fundamental rights.

Today’s letter follows an August 28 letter from 14 organizations, including WITNESS, which called on Google to “[Disclose]what steps, if any, Google is taking to safeguard against human rights violations linked to Project Dragonfly and its other Chinese mobile app offerings” and “Guarantee protections for whistle-blowers and other employees speaking out where they see the company is failing its commitments to human rights.” The letter outlined concrete concerns with the project and how it would aid surveillance and censorship. It also builds on two open letters from Google employees calling on the company to drop Project Dragonfly.

Google’s October 26th response was lackluster. The company notes that it hasn’t committed to building a censored search engine, but it also doesn’t explain how the project could possibly comply with Google’s previous public statements about upholding human rights and freedom of expression.

Read the letter in full below:


To: Sundar Pichai, Chief Executive Officer, Google Inc

cc: Ben Gomes, Vice President of Search; Kent Walker, Senior Vice President of Global Affairs; Scott Beaumont, Vice President, Greater China & Korea

11 December 2018

Dear Mr Pichai,

We are writing to ask you to ensure that Google drops Project Dragonfly and any plans to launch a censored search app in China, and to re-affirm the company’s 2010 commitment that it won’t provide censored search services in the country.

We are disappointed that Google in its letter of 26 October[1] failed to address the serious concerns of human rights groups over Project Dragonfly. Instead of addressing the substantive issues set out in the August letter,[2] Google’s response – along with further details that have since emerged about Project Dragonfly – only heightens our fear that the company may knowingly compromise its commitments to human rights and freedom of expression, in exchange for access to the Chinese search market.

We stand with current and former Google employees speaking out over recent ethical scandals at the company, including Project Dragonfly. We wholeheartedly support the message from hundreds of Google employees asking Google to drop Dragonfly in their open letter of 27 November, and commend their bravery in speaking out publicly. We echo their statement that their “opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be.” [3]

New details leaked to the media strongly suggest that if Google launches such a product it would facilitate repressive state censorship, surveillance, and other violations affecting nearly a billion people in China. Media reports state that Google has built a prototype that censors “blacklisted” search terms including “human rights”, “student protest” and “Nobel Prize”, including in journalistic content, and links users’ search queries to personal phone numbers.[4] The app would also force users to sign in to use the service, track and store location information and search histories, and provide “unilateral access” to such data to an unnamed Chinese joint venture company, in line with China’s data localization law – allowing the government virtually unfettered access to this information.[5]

Facilitating Chinese authorities’ access to personal data, as described in media reports, would be particularly reckless. If such features were launched, there is a real risk that Google would directly assist the Chinese government in arresting or imprisoning people simply for expressing their views online, making the company complicit in human rights violations. This risk was identified by Google’s own security and privacy review team, according to former and current Google employees. Despite attempts to minimize internal scrutiny, a team tasked with assessing Dragonfly concluded that Google “would be expected to function in China as part of the ruling Communist Party’s authoritarian system of policing and surveillance,” according to a media report.[6]

Actively aiding China’s censorship and surveillance regime is likely to set a terrible precedent for human rights and press freedoms worldwide. A recent Freedom House report warned that the Chinese government is actively promoting its model of pervasive digital censorship and surveillance around the world.[7] Many governments look to China’s example, and a major industry leader’s acquiescence to such demands will likely cause many other regimes to follow China’s lead, provoking a race to the bottom in standards. It would also undermine efforts by Google and other companies to resist government surveillance requests in order to protect users’ privacy and security,[8] emboldening state intelligence and security agencies to demand greater access to user data.

Google’s letter makes several specific points that are directly contradicted by other sources. The letter states that it is “not close” to launching a search product in China, and that before doing so the company would consult with key stakeholders. However, as reported by the media, comments made in July by Ben Gomes, Google’s Head of Search, suggested the product could be “six to nine months [to launch]” and stressed the importance of having a product ready to be “brought off the shelf and quickly deployed” so that “we don’t miss that window if it ever comes.”[9]

The letter also states that Google worked on Dragonfly simply to “explore” the possibility of re-entering the Chinese search market, and that it does not know whether it “would or could” launch such a product. Yet media reports based on an internal Google memo suggest that the project was in a “pretty advanced state” and that the company had invested extensive resources to its development.[10]

Google’s decision to design and build Dragonfly in the first place is troubling. Google’s own AI Principles commit the company not to “design or deploy” (emphasis added) technologies whose purpose contravenes human rights. Given the company’s history in China and the assessment of its own security team, Google is well aware of the human rights implications of providing such an application. Moreover, Google’s letter fails to answer many questions about what steps, if any, the company is taking to safeguard human rights, including with respect to its current Chinese mobile app offerings, consistent with its commitments.

We urge Google to heed concerns from its own employees and from organizations and individuals across the political spectrum by abandoning Project Dragonfly and reaffirming its commitment not to provide censored search services in China. We also note that the letter makes no reference to whistle-blowers, and thus we urgently repeat our call to the company that it must publicly commit to protect the rights of whistle-blowers and other workers voicing rights concerns.

We welcome that Google has confirmed the company “takes seriously” its responsibility to respect human rights. However, the company has so far failed to explain how it reconciles that responsibility with the company’s decision to design a product purpose-built to undermine the rights to freedom of expression and privacy.

Signed, the following organizations:

Access Now

ActiveWatch – Media Monitoring Agency (MMA)

Adil Soz – International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech

Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)

Amnesty International

Article 19

Articulo 12 – Son Tus Datos

Association for Progressive Communications

Asociacion para una Ciudadania Participativa

Bolo Bhi

Briar Project

Bytes for All (B4A)

Cartoonists Rights Network, International (CRNI)

Center for Democracy & Technology

Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR)

Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ)

Child Rights International Network (CRIN)

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF)

Foro de Periodismo Argentino (FOPEA)

Freedom of the Press Foundation

Freedom Forum

Fundación Datos Protegidos (Chile)

Fundacion Internet Bolivia

Globe International Center (GIC)

Hong Kong Journalists Association

Human Rights in China (HRIC)

Human Rights First

Human Rights Watch

Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC)

Independent Journalism Center (IJC)

Index on Censorship

Initiative for Freedom of Expression – Turkey

Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR)

International Campaign for Tibet

International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

International Tibet Network Secretariat

Internet Sans Frontières

Latin American Observatory of Regulation, Media and Convergence – OBSERVACOM

Media Rights Agenda (MRA)

Mediacentar Sarajevo


Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD)

New America’s Open Technology Institute

Norwegian PEN


Pacific Island News Association

Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA)

PEN International

PEN America

Privacy International

Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

Software Freedom Law Center, India (SFLC.in)

South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)

Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

Students for a Free Tibet

Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM)

Tibet Action Institute

Việt Tân


World Uyghur Congress

Signed in individual capacity (affiliations for identification purposes only):

Chinmayi Arun

Assistant Professor, National Law University Delhi

Arturo J. Carrillo

Clinical Professor of Law, The George Washington University Law School

Richard Danbury

Associate Professor, Journalism, De Montfort University Leicester

Ronald Deibert

Professor of Political Science and Director of the Citizen Lab, University of Toronto

Molly K. Land

Professor of Law and Human Rights, University of Connecticut School of Law                                                                                  

Rebecca MacKinnon

Director, Ranking Digital Rights                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Deirdre K. Mulligan

Associate Professor, School of Information and Faculty Director, Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, University of California, Berkeley

Paloma Muñoz Quick

Director, Investor Alliance for Human Rights (IAHR)                                                                                                                 

Edward Snowden

President, Freedom of the Press Foundation

Lokman Tsui

Assistant Professor, School of Journalism and Communication, The Chinese University of Hong Kong


[1] Letter from Kent Walker, Senior Vice President for Global Affairs at Google, responding to concerns of multiple human rights organizations and individuals, 26 October 2018, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/ASA17/9552/2018/en/

[2] Letter to Sundar Pichai from multiple human rights organizations and individuals, 28 August 2018, https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4792329-Google-Dragonfly-Open-Letter.html

[3] Google employees, ‘We are Google employees. Google must drop Dragonfly’, 27 September 2018, https://medium.com/@googlersagainstdragonfly/we-are-google-employees-google-must-drop-dragonfly-4c8a30c5e5eb

[4] Ryan Gallagher, ‘Google China Prototype Links Searches to Phone Numbers’, The Intercept, 14 September 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/09/14/google-china-prototype-links-searches-to-phone-numbers/ ;  Jack Poulson, Letter to Senate Commerce Committee, 24 September 2018, https://int.nyt.com/data/documenthelper/328-jack-poulson-dragonfly/87933ffa89dfa78d9007/optimized/full.pdf

[5] Ryan Gallagher and Lee Fang, ‘Google Suppresses Memo Revealing Plans To Closely Track Search Users In China’, The Intercept, 21 September 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/09/21/google-suppresses-memo-revealing-plans-to-closely-track-search-users-in-china/

[6] Ryan Gallagher, ‘Google Shut Out Privacy and Security Teams from Secret China Project’, The Intercept, 29 November 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/11/29/google-china-censored-search/

[7] Freedom House, ‘Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism’, October 2018, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2018/rise-digital-authoritarianism

[8] Reform Government Surveillance Coalition

[9] Ryan Gallagher, ‘Leaked Transcript Of Private Meeting Contradicts Google’s Official Story On China’, The Intercept, 9 October 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/10/09/google-china-censored-search-engine/

[10] Ryan Gallagher and Lee Fang, ‘Google Suppresses Memo Revealing Plans to Closely Track Search Users in China’, The Intercept, 21 September 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/09/21/google-suppresses-memo-revealing-plans-to-closely-track-search-users-in-china/



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