3 min read

“While we are saying it’s going to be six and nine months [to launch], the world is a very dynamic place”
– Ben Gomes, Google’s search engine chief

The past two months have been filled with controversies for Google after The Intercept revealed details about a censored search engine for China, code-named Dragonfly. The project was severely criticized by human rights groups, U.S. senators and Google employees– some of whom have resigned. Even Vice President Mike Pence last week, called on Google to “immediately end development of the Dragonfly app”  while accusing China to be “applying its power in more proactive ways than ever before, to exert influence and interfere in the domestic policy and politics of our country.”

Now, fresh reposts have emerged that according to a leaked transcript to The Intercept, Google is all set to launch the search engine in the coming months. This came as a stark contrast to the public comments released by many of its senior executives. On September 23, at an event celebrating Google’s 20th anniversary, Ben Gomes, Google’s search engine chief, was confronted by a BBC reporter on the controversial search engine. Gomes told the reporter that all the work done so far is “some exploration,” “but since we don’t have any plans to launch something, there’s nothing much I can say about it.”

Following this incident, on Sept. 26, Keith Enright, Google’s chief privacy officer faced public questions on the censorship plan. He confirmed that Project Dragonfly did exist, but affirmed: “we are not close to launching a product in China.”

Looks like the plan was way over an “exploration,” as highlighted by Google’s own employees in a memo posted on an internal messaging list set up for Google employees to raise ethical concerns. Google had desperately tried to suppress this information by scrubbing the memo from the list. Individuals who had opened or saved the document were contacted by Google’s human resources department to discuss the matter. The employees were also instructed against sharing the memo.

The leaked transcript of Ben Gomes private meeting with employees working on Dragonfly (dated July 18, 2018) is not in sync with these publicly released comments. The transcript records Gomes saying that the project was “the biggest opportunity to serve more people that we have. And if you take our mission seriously, that’s where our key focus should be”. He goes on to add that China is one of the “most interesting markets”. He prepares them to look for the window of opportunity where the search engine could be launched given the uncertain political climate in the US, supposedly six-nine months down the line. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if the engine launches earlier than the said deadline, as Gomes himself states that “This is a world none of us have ever lived in before, so I feel like we shouldn’t put too much definite into the timeline.”

This search engine was specifically designed to block terms considered to be sensitive by the Chinese communist party regimen such as ‘peaceful protest’. With citizens phone numbers, IP address and location tracking attached to their search queries, it would be very easy for the government to track their internet footprint. The fear is that Google could be directly contributing to, or becoming complicit in, human rights violations.

You can head over to The Intercept for the complete transcript of this private meeting.

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