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Google Employees Join Others In Asking The Search Engine To Stay Out Of China

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Dozens of Google employees are speaking out against the company's plan to build a special search engine for China. The employees have joined with Amnesty International, urging Google to cancel the project. The company's plan calls for a search engine that would comply with China's policy of online censorship, often known as the Great Firewall.

NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports on the controversial project.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: The Chinese blogger known as Super Vulgar Butcher used to post about the government's abuses of power. His blog became quite popular. These days, he's simply known as the inmate Wu Gan, serving eight years for expressing dissent. Sarah Cook, a researcher with Freedom House, a nonprofit for the expansion of democracy, says this is common.

SARAH COOK: So the Chinese government has actually managed to develop the most sophisticated and multi-layered apparatus of Internet censorship and surveillance anywhere in the world.

GARSD: It's the kind of censorship that ultimately led Google to pull out of China in 2010. But the company has been working on a way to get back. After all, there are currently over 700 million Internet users in China. Because of its large population, China is an extremely attractive market, one that's relatively closed off to American tech companies.

COOK: Pretty much any major website or media, social media service that you think of - YouTube, Twitter, Facebook - all of those are blocked. The Chinese government uses the Great Firewall to block Chinese users' access to those.

GARSD: Project Dragonfly would be Google but censored for China. That means if users in China search for words like Tiananmen Square, repression or human rights, they'll only find government-approved information. Also, users' search records would be accessible to the government.

Joe Westby researches technology and human rights at Amnesty International, which has asked Google to kill Project Dragonfly.

JOE WESTBY: If Google breaks that trust by sharing that it's willing to compromise its principles in order to gain access to the Chinese market and effectively for profit, how can we be sure that it won't do the same in other countries and with other governments?

GARSD: Google told NPR that their work has been, quote, "exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China."

But in a letter published today, a group of Google workers said they stand with Amnesty International. The letters read, quote, "we refuse to build technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable." It's part of an increasing activist tide across big tech.

Earlier this year, several Google workers quit in protest of Project Maven, which provided artificial intelligence to the Pentagon for drone facial recognition. The outcry was so loud, Google backed down. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMEFE SONG, "STUTTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.