Google should protect whistleblowers and increase transparency, not stifle it



Guillermo JM

The Intercept recently revealed that Google is working to develop a censored search application for the Chinese market, sparking intense criticism from human rights groups about the implications for human rights and freedom of speech in China. Concerned Google employees brought this secretive project into the light, and in doing so enabled Google employees, the public, and Chinese citizens to evaluate and mobilize in opposition.

These employees are whistleblowers—people who exposed information that’s of critical importance to the rest of Google and the public. And it isn’t the first time that Google employees have go to the press to expose a project that could have disastrous consequences for human rights.

When Gizmodo broke the news that Google was in collaboration with the Department of Defense in developing artificial intelligence technology for analyzing drone footage, Google employees quickly denounced the partnership. Thousands of employees mobilized and signed onto a letter demanding Google pull out of the project, and on June 1, Google announced that it would not renew its contract for Project Maven.

As with Maven, the backlash to Google’s complicity in expanding censorship and surveillance in China has been swift and intense. Over a dozen human rights organizations are demanding Google end its participation in Chinese repression of its citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy and demanded that Google both protect the whistleblowers involved and be more transparent with the public.

“In relation both to Project Dragonfly and to Google’s involvement in the US government’s drone programme, Project Maven, whistle-blowers have been crucial in bringing ethical concerns over Google’s operations to public attention,” the letter said. “The protection of whistle-blowers who disclose information that is clearly in the public interest is grounded in the rights to freedom of expression and access to information.”

The rights organizations went on to say, “We are calling on Google to publicly commit to protect whistle-blowers in the company and to take immediate steps to address the concerns employees have raised about Project Dragonfly.” Freedom of the Press Foundation echoes these calls and stands with the whistleblowers and journalists who revealed these projects. 

Dragonfly also has huge implications for press freedom worldwide. “Since China is providing a template for other press freedom violations, its relationship with Google takes on a specific significance,” the Committee to Project Journalist’s Avi Asher-Schapiro wrote in an article about what the project could mean for journalism. “By integrating its services into China's press censorship apparatus, Xiao says Google risks dealing a major blow to digital press freedoms norms, which are already under siege globally.”

Google employees are also calling for the company to make significant internal changes.

“Our industry has entered a new era of ethical responsibility: the choices we make matter on a global scale,” Google employees wrote in an open letter demanding changes. “Yet most of us only learned about Project Dragonfly through news reports in early August.”

To many Google employees, that they learned about Project Dragonfly only due to leaks to the press indicates a need for leadership to establish clear transparency and oversight processes. Since the existence of the project is now public, it allows them—along with humans rights groups—to organize and advocate for more transparency and accountability. That’s thanks to whistleblowers.

Companies that claim to care about transparency—especially those like Google, which have the power to influence civil liberties for people across the world—should implement robust internal policies to protect whistleblowers. Whether they bring their ethical concerns to their supervisors or the press, tech workers should not have to fear retaliation for alerting people to an issue of profound public concern.

Google should immediately address the concerns that its employees have raised about the company’s complicity in a project that could expand China’s censorship and surveillance apparatus and deal serious blows to press freedom.

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