Human rights groups set to protest controversial Google project in China

TORONTO — Canadian Google offices are expected to face protests Friday from human rights activists hoping to force the tech giant to confirm it has cancelled a controversial project with the Chinese government.

The coalition of at least eight Chinese, Tibetan and Uyghur organizations said they will rally outside the company’s Toronto and Montreal offices to highlight risks associated with Project Dragonfly — a search engine they claim the company was secretly building to comply with strict Chinese censorship laws.

The organizations behind the protests claim the engine would comply with Chinese regulations restricting searches for forbidden and sensitive topics, including “human rights,” “democracy,” “Tiananmen” and “Tibet” and could also facilitate state surveillance in China by linking users’ search history with their telephone numbers.

“For a company that has so much power, I think it is very, very concerning that Google is trying to develop and launch this new search engine app specifically made for the Chinese market and has to comply with the Chinese government and their extreme internet censorship laws,” said Sonam Chokey, national director for rally organizer Students for a Free Tibet Canada, who worries about the project’s impact on freedom of speech and internet security.

“We want to specifically engage with (Google employees) and make sure they understand the company they are working for is dancing very dangerously with the Chinese government.”

Chokey said similar protests will be held in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Switzerland, Sweden, Argentina and Chile.

At the Toronto and Montreal ones, protesters will hand out leaflets to Google employees, sharing their discontent with the project.

Asked for comment on the protests, a spokesman for Google Canada directed The Canadian Press to statements its chief executive officer Sundar Pichai made in December before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.

Pichai told the committee there are no plans for the product to be launched in China, but if that changes, he vowed to be “fully transparent” and “consult widely.”

“I don’t think that is adequate enough,” said Chokey. “It is very ambiguous.”

Dragonfly could be a lucrative way for the tech giant to return to the Chinese market following its 2010 decision to shutdown its Chinese search engine over censorship concerns.

Pichai’s comments came months after more than 1,000 Google employees signed a letter protesting the project and demanding executives review ethics and transparency at the company.

Media reports said several senior employees quit the company over the initiative and tens of thousands of members of the public signed various online petitions pushing for the end of the project.

Their resignations came just after employees used a letter campaign again to convince Google to abandon a U.S. military contract it had for Project Maven, which allows the company’s artificial intelligence software to be used for the targeting of drone strikes.

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