Google’s Dragonfly: A Bellwether for Human Rights in the Digital Age

Both of us vividly recall the remarkable events of 2010, when Google took its stand against Chinese government censorship by publicly declaring it would withdraw its search engine services from China. One of us was providing informal feedback to senior Google executives in the weeks leading up to the decision; the other was working at Human Rights in China, a civil society member of the Global Network Initiative (GNI), of which Google was a founding member. The decision to withdraw from such a lucrative market as China, while informed by a number of factors beyond human rights, struck us as a bold, nearly unheard of action by a corporate actor in the face of pressure by one of the world’s most powerful governments. Google’s choice to remove its search engine from the Chinese market, rather than capitulate to rights-infringing censorship demands and other interference from the Chinese government, was the right thing to do, which made it all the more remarkable that it was the path chosen.

This “history” (eight years being a lifetime in the digital space) throws yesterday’s news about Google’s secret “Dragonfly” project, a search engine that will meet Beijing’s demands for censorship, into disturbing relief. Ever since 2010, the Chinese government has never quite gotten over the rebuke leveled against it by an uppity Western ICT company, which in retrospect clearly discredited the government on the world stage. Google took the type of action in support of human rights that few governments, let alone the private sector, would dare attempt. Of course, the Chinese government viewed the incident as a threat to regime control, with a member of the Strategic Advisory Committee of the PLA describing China’s handling of “the Google storm in 2010” as “a resolute defence of Internet sovereignty.”

But, in the end, the Chinese government merely had to wait its challenger out, and all would be well. Google’s reconsideration reminds us of the final thoughts of Winston, the protagonist of George Orwell’s 1984: “O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! . . . But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”

Sea change

We can’t say Google’s change of heart is surprising. Its decision is fully reflective of the broader forces at work in the digital environment: the entrenchment of digital authoritarianism, among both democratic and non-democratic countries, and the rollback of human rights. Governments have increasingly pressured ICT companies to police their platforms in a multitude of ways: aggressively censoring content ranging from hate speech and extremist material to discussion of politically sensitive issues; complying with government demands for user information, which in many cases raises due process concerns; requiring real name registration; maintaining the ability to decode the encrypted information of users; and so on. At the same time, governments have become quite adept at paying lip service to human rights in the digital age, while undermining international human rights law through hypocrisy, abandonment, and division.

All of this has resulted in a normalization of information controls and a decline in Internet openness in the world at large. It is possible that Google’s executive leadership has taken the view that China is no longer an outlier, but rather, a standard-bearer in online “rules of engagement.” Resisting no longer makes any business sense when the laws and policies of your country of origin and other active markets begin to resemble those of the country from which you withdrew. Indeed, Apple is already present in the Chinese market and capitulating to censorship and data localization demands, while Facebook continues to pursue entry. And major ICT companies from the West, including Google, have flocked to the Wuzhen World Internet Conference, which is dominated by the discourse of Internet sovereignty.

Today’s ICT companies encounter a much more robust and emboldened regulatory environment in China than that which existed in 2010. China’s Cybersecurity Law, which went into effect on June 1, 2017, requires real name registration, data localization and disclosure, and content controls, in line with recent changes of China’s Internet regulatory movements. Within the past five years, China has set up the Cyberspace Administration of China, its top-level Internet management body headed directly by President Xi Jinping, to oversee Internet regulations. Meanwhile, China has also released the 2015 National Security Law, the Measures for Administration of Mobile Apps, the Regulations for Administration of Online Publishing Services, and the Management Rules of Internet Group Information Services, to name a few. This regulatory ramp-up demonstrates the government’s intention to further strengthen and legitimize its control of Internet activities. Yet none of these requirements has served to dampen the appeal of the Chinese market. Private companies—including the industry leaders—are building their business models predominantly around the needs of the state.

Fallout   

The apparent secrecy surrounding the Dragonfly project suggests that Google leadership understands the sensitivity of bringing search services back to China on the Chinese government’s terms. The Intercept reports that only a few hundred Google staff were aware of the existence of Dragonfly, while the project “is being planned by a handful of top executives and managers at the company with no public scrutiny.” Yet in moving forward with the project it seems the commercial benefits have outweighed the human rights risks.

It is unclear how Google ever planned to reconcile Dragonfly with its own human rights and public policy commitments, or if it intends to formally weaken or abandon those commitments. For example, as part of the multi-stakeholder GNI, Google has “commit[ed] to implement the organization’s Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy.” Google has agreed within the GNI framework to “seek[] to avoid or minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression,” including censorship (GNI Principles, Freedom of Expression). It has also committed to transparency and agreed to  “communicate [its] general approach to addressing [its] human rights impacts in relation to freedom of expression and privacy (e.g. informal engagement with relevant stakeholders, public communications, formal public reporting)” (Implementation Guidelines, 5.4). Neither the substance nor the process of the Dragonfly project appear to reflect these commitments, raising questions as to current Google leadership’s familiarity and engagement with GNI.

The Dragonfly project presents additional vexing questions. With so few within the company even aware of the effort, will Google employees view Dragonfly as contrary to company values and culture? How have those values and culture changed since 2010? The fact of this leak to The Intercept suggests there are some within the company that strongly disagree with the Dragonfly project. It remains to be seen whether Google employees will organize to speak out and demand a reversal, as thousands did over Google’s involvement in a Pentagon program for drone technology to be used in warfare.

Finally, one of the major motivations for the company’s 2010 stand against China were the digital intrusions directed against Google and its users (and other companies) as part of Operation Aurora, attributed to China’s PLA. To what extent have Google and Chinese government entities discussed whether such digital espionage operations, or other forms of compromise of user data, will persist after its re-entry to the Chinese market? Have assurances of digital détente been made? Or, is it simply that Google has finally reconciled itself to the fact that entry into the Chinese market comes with a different type of “compromise” of user data, one that, by the company “following local laws,” is more easily defensible to shareholders and the world at large?

Regardless of whether the project proceeds, Dragonfly is yet another clear warning that the ground has shifted for proponents of human rights in the digital age. A digitized world increasingly looks like a surveilled and censored world; options for engagement that do not compromise human rights in some form are dwindling. Counter-norms, providing models through which both companies and governments ensure “human rights by design,” are urgently required. We hope that it is not too late for Google to again push back against the global digital trends undermining human rights.

Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images 

About the Author(s)

Sarah McKune

Senior Researcher for the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto

Ronald Deibert

Professor of Political Science and Director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs Follow him on Twitter (@RonDeibert).