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Google Secret Project 'Dragonfly' Gets Backlash From Employees

MOUNTAIN VIEW (KPIX 5) -- A secret Google project  to reportedly develop a censored version of the Internet search engine for China has left from more than a thousand employees of the company outraged.

When Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai took the stage during the big Google I/O Conference in Mountain View earlier this year, he told the thousands of employees in the audience that the company had been reflecting on its responsibilities in the world.

"So we know the path ahead needs to be navigated carefully and deliberately, and we feel a deep sense of responsibility to get this right," said Pichai.

Months after the conference, Pichai's own workers would hold him to those ideals.

Google employees want to know just how far the tech giant is willing to go to get back into China. They had a staff meeting today where they presented their concerns to the higher-ups.

Google has reportedly been working on a secret project codenamed Dragonfly, which is a censored version of its own search engine to be used in mainland China. On Thursday, the New York Times broke the news about a protest letter signed by 1,400 employees saying they wanted to "raise urgent moral and ethical issues."

Employees in the letter asked for more transparency from the company about the the project and its ethical and moral implications. They also want to be more informed about their work and they want to have "a seat at the table" moving forward.

"Google employees need to know what we're building," read the letter.

Ann Skeet, a leadership ethics expert at Santa Clara University, calls them activist employees.

"It is wise to listen to employees when they speak up. There's plenty of research; [those] whose actual stock value does the best over time are those that manage their human resources effectively. And so, this kind of engagement and listening to employees is certainly part of that," said Skeet.

For years, Silicon Valley companies have had a frustrating relationship with China as they've tried to gain a foothold there. Government censors have blocked companies like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter with the so-called Great Firewall.

In 2010, Google pulled out its search engine after the company said they discovered evidence of government cyber attacks on its servers and attempted hacking of the Gmail accounts of human rights activists. In the late 1990's, the late congressman Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, publicly scolded Yahoo executives in a hearing back about cooperating with Chinese police.

"Your abhorrent activities in China are a disgrace. I simply do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night," said Lantos.

Skeet says it's understandable why tech companies keep going back to China; it's home to the largest base of internet users in the world. But with the most recent Google employee protest letter, this relationship becomes more complicated.

"China represents a great opportunity for them to grow their business, so it's natural that they would consider that. But they now have to balance out that desire for growth with the expressions of concern that are coming from their own workforce," said Skeet.

A couple of months ago, Google got complaints from its employees about a government contract with the Pentagon to develop artificial intelligence. Google listened to their employees and promised not to renew that contract, so the company has proven that they've listened to their employees on such issues in the past.

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