On Tuesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai will face a roomful of members of Congress demanding answers. One of the topics he’ll have to address is a growing area of concern from both the political left and right: His company’s previously secret plans to build a censored search engine in China.
Critics fear that the project, code-named Dragonfly, will enable the Chinese government to block its citizens from accessing information it doesn’t like and surveil its political opponents. A prototype of the product blacklisted specific search terms such as “human rights,” “Nobel Prize” and “student protest,” according to the Intercept.
It was also reported that Google would rely on a Chinese partner company for the infrastructure of the project, potentially leaving users’ search history vulnerable to be seized by the Chinese government, which regularly arrests and detains political dissidents.
Google has called the project “exploratory” and framed it as being within initial phases of creation. Speaking at a conference in October, Pichai also defended the ethical merit of the project — saying that even with a censored product, Google could still “serve well over 99 percent” of search queries. He also said his company is compelled by its mission to “provide information to everyone,” including in China, the world’s most populous country.
It’s a politically tricky debate — one in which Pichai views himself as fulfilling Google’s mission to expand the company’s global reach, while critics — including House leaders set to question him this week — see him as compromising the company’s commitment to protecting the free flow of information online.
Although many details of the project are still unknown, here’s what’s been made public about the project so far, and some important history around it.
When did the project start?
Google’s history in China extends years before Dragonfly. Back in 2006, Google launched Google.cn, a version of its search engine for China that complied with local censorship regulations. But over time, the company became increasingly distressed by reports of government-led cyberattacks, censorship and surveillance involving the tool. Google co-founder Sergey Brin reportedly was one of the key leaders who raised caution about the threat to civil liberties by staying in the region. The company was also failing to win market share over China-based competitor Baidu. By 2010, Google had backed out.
Google stayed out of search in China for seven years until spring of 2017, according to the Intercept, when, under Pichai’s leadership, the search giant started working on Project Dragonfly. The company managed to keep news of the project largely under wraps until the Intercept’s report this August.
Who’s for it, and who’s against it?
Many human rights organizations are against it, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
On the political side, leaders from both parties have found rare bipartisan agreement on the issue. Everyone from Vice President Mike Pence to Democratic Senator Mark Warner have criticized the plans.
Within the company, around 1,400 employees signed a letter internally raising ethical concerns about the project, and more than 700 have signed a public letter calling for it to stop. Several employees, including senior staff, have resigned over the project.
One prominent Google employee recently started a strike fund for her colleagues in the case of potential collective action on the topic. After asking for donations on Twitter, she says she raised $100,000 in pledges in a matter of hours, and intends to match $100,000 with her own funds.
While most public discussions from employees have been critical of Dragonfly, some employees are also defending the project’s merits internally — at least in an exploratory stage. TechCrunch reported that around 500 employees signed an internal letter supporting the project as of last week.
Which companies offer search in China?
China-based Baidu is by and large the market leader for search in the country. The company has been accused of putting false information on its platform from advertisers that can sometimes lead to deadly misinformation. But because it’s a Chinese company, there’s little expectation for it to defy the political censorship requirements of its own government.
In terms of U.S. companies, Microsoft offers a censored version of its Bing product in China. Yahoo has also offered a censored version of its product in the past, as well, although recently the search site has reportedly been blocked in the country.
These tech firms have also both faced their fair share of criticism over human rights concerns. But critics say that Google is held to a higher standard, mainly because of its stated commitment to moral integrity. It’s old motto was, after all, “Don’t be evil” (now replaced by the slightly more ambiguous “Do the right thing”).
As the public watches a debate between Congress and Google play out, it might be useful to remember an example from the past.
Fourteen years ago, Yahoo turned over the email records of a political dissident, Shi Tao, to the Chinese government. Tao, a journalist and poet, had leaked a memo distributed by the government that restricted reporters from covering the 15th anniversary of Tiananmen Square. For this crime, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail — and ended up serving eight years before being released.
When former Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang and General Counsel Michael Callahan testified at a hearing before a congressional committee over the issue, one U.S. House representative had the following to say about tech companies that willingly cooperate with Chinese authorities to crack down on free speech:
“While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies,” said then-committee Chairman Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the U.S. Congress.
Right now, political dissidents aren’t being arrested because of their Google searches in China, but given cases like Tao’s, it’s not hard to envision a situation where they could. We’ll get a taste of how seriously U.S. politicians are taking the threat of that potential scenario in the hearing on Tuesday.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.