//** * * */
After nearly 10 months of campaigning, Tibetans and Tibet campaigners are today buoyed by the news that Google has publicly confirmed, at its shareholders’ meeting, that there are “no plans to offer a search engine in China.” This confirmation came after Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, stated at the weekend that a ‘censorship-free internet’ would be an important condition for them to operate in China.
Tibetans and Tibet campaigners have worked in partnership with Chinese and Uyghur rights activists, digital technology experts and ethical consumer rights campaigners, like sumofus.org and freetibet.org, to build pressure on Google not to pursue ‘Dragonfly’, on the grounds that it would compromise the company’s stated commitment to human rights protection.
The coalition of activists was alerted to the secret existence of ‘Dragonfly’ in 2018 after Google staff leaked information about the search engine. The leaks highlighted that ‘Dragonfly’ was designed to block internet users in China from information about human rights or democracy and to censor ‘sensitive’ phrases such as ‘Free Tibet’, ‘Tiananmen Protest’ or ‘Dalai Lama’. Furthermore, for Google’s search engine to comply with China’s strict cybersecurity laws the company would have to automatically make a user's search history available to the Chinese government, thereby jeopardising the safety of any user.
The latest statement confirming that ‘Project Dragonfly’ had been halted came today, 19 June, during the shareholders’ meeting of Google’s parent company Alphabet in San Francisco.
During the shareholders’ meeting, Tibetan campaigner Sonamtso, Campaigns and Communications Director for Students for a Free Tibet, made a statement to the Board and shareholders that articulated the strong concerns that Tibetans and other groups have raised about Project Dragonfly. In her statement, Sonamtso told the Google executives and shareholders present: “I come from a country where people are imprisoned for using search terms that the Chinese government doesn’t like and considers “sensitive.” These human rights violations are real and Google must not be complicit. Frontline communities don’t have the luxury of waiting for all of your “hypotheticals” to turn into real risks for us. You have violated the trust that your customers place in you, and that is bad for shareholder value. Google’s willingness to collude with the government of China sets an extremely dangerous precedent for internet freedom around the world.”
Following the statement, Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president of Global Affairs, responded to questions about ‘Project Dragonfly’ by confirming that the company had no plans to work on the censored search engine, but under questioning stopped short of completely ruling out future collaboration with the government of China. See the shareholder meeting.
Despite sending four letters to Google CEO Sundar Pichai raising concerns about ‘Dragonfly’, and the unprecedented crisis of repression unfolding against Tibetans, Uyghurs and Chinese dissidents, the Coalition received no response from the company. This lack of engagement by Google meant that those campaigning were forced to wait until today’s shareholders’ meeting to speak directly to Google executives and shareholders, and to receive final confirmation that “Dragonfly” had - at least for now - been abandoned.
Outside the meeting venue, Tibetans handed out leaflets and engaged with Google shareholders, telling them about the realities of life in Tibet and the human rights abuses that are committed under Chinese occupation. The consumer group SumOfUs also submitted a petition, signed by 86,000 people, urging Google CEO Sundar Pichai to end Project ‘Dragonfly’.
The activities in San Francisco were part of a global day of action against Project Dragonfly. During the course of 19 June, Chinese, Tibetans, Uyghurs and their supporters held vigils and protests outside Google offices around the world, calling on the company to scrap Project Dragonfly. Actions took place at Google offices in 15 cities across the globe, including London, Mumbai, New York, Paris, Sydney and Toronto. (7)
John Jones, Campaigns and Advocacy Manager at Free Tibet, said: “After months of hard work, we are pleased to hear Google confirm that it has no plans to offer ‘Project Dragonfly’ in China. The Chinese Communist Party were never going to allow Google to reestablish itself in China without compromising everything positive about the Internet, from the privacy of users to free access to information. The secretive nature of the project suggests that on some level the company’s executives knew this. Thanks to the tenacity of those involved in the campaign, as well as the bravery of those Google employees who spoke out, the company has, at least for now, put these plans on hold. We will keep watch for future developments, but for the moment, it’s a time to celebrate”.
Mandie McKeown, Campaign Coordinator at International Tibet Network said: “This is welcome news for the Tibet freedom movement and for defenders of human rights inside Tibet, East Turkestan and China. We are proud to share this success with our allies and global Tibet Groups that have taken part in the campaign. We have been bolstered to see what we can achieve when we work together, but we will remain vigilant that Google does not renege on this position in the future. We will continue to press Google and other digital tech companies to maximise human rights policies and not bend to China's influence.”
Teng Biao, Chinese Human Rights Lawyer and Activist said: “Just last week two million Hongkongers marched for their fundamental rights; the week before thousands of people around the world rallied to remember the atrocities of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, but because of China's high-tech totalitarianism the majority of people living in Mainland China know nothing of these events. Google have done the right thing by stating it has “no plans” to provide technology to promote dictatorship.”
Peter Irwin, World Uyghur Congress Program Manager, said: “Google's recent response to sustained pressure illustrates that carefully targeted action from civil society can have a tremendous impact. It is not, however, time to take our foot off the gas. Widespread rights abuses continue to be facilitated by technology companies with no qualms working directly in support of mass surveillance, artificial intelligence and other programs designed to monitor and control the Chinese domestic population. It is incumbent upon the international business community to live up to clear human rights standards to actively avoid complicity in abuses.”
Sondhya Gupta, Campaign Manager at SumOfUs, said: “We’re glad that growing pressure from its employees, shareholders and customers has forced Google to drop its plans for censored search engine for China. But its executives made this decision with no transparency or dialogue with those communities most affected. Google still claims to have a ‘limited presence’ in China and its failure to comment on the cyber surveillance aspects of ‘Dragonfly’ shows it’s still a long way from being accountable for the impact its products have on human rights. We’ll keep calling for the big changes the company needs.”