Google employees aren’t convinced that Dragonfly is dead

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Some Google employees believe they found evidence that Google’s plans to launch a censored search engine — codenamed “Dragonfly” — in China are still ongoing, according to a new report from The Intercept. Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai told US regulators last year that Google had “no plans” to launch the censored search engine “right now.” But some Google employees, unsatisfied and suspicious, have found internal evidence that suggests development has continued.

Employees spotted around 500 changes to Dragonfly-related code in December. Another 400 changes were made to the code in January, indicating to the employees that the project was still ongoing. They also investigated the company budgeting plans and saw that about 100 workers were still grouped under the budget associated with Project Dragonfly.

Reached for comment, Google denied that work had continued on Dragonfly. “This speculation is wholly inaccurate. Quite simply: there’s no work happening on Dragonfly,” a Google representative told The Verge. “As we’ve said for many months, we have no plans to launch Search in China and there is no work being undertaken on such a project. Team members have moved to new projects.”

The censored search project would have offered China a search engine that blocked results for sensitive topics. Those topics would likely have included Xinjiang, Tibet, and the Tiananmen Square massacre, based on what is already censored for existing search engines that operate in China.

It’s possible that the code changes were just the finishing touches to bring the project to an end. But it’s possible that the code changes mean the project hasn’t halted, despite Pichai’s claims. One Google software engineer told The Intercept he suspected that Pichai might be waiting for the outrage over the project to taper off before starting the plans again under a new codename.

Google is currently blocked in China. According to The Intercept’s initial reporting, Dragonfly was meant to give Google a way back into the country, giving it access to a large user base, and giving Chinese internet users access to more information. Over a thousand Google employees have protested the project by signing an open letter highlighting the human rights abuses Google would become complicit in if Dragonfly were to launch. Several Google employees have also quit partly over the lack of transparency surrounding Project Dragonfly. Google publicly backed off on the project in December.

Update March 4th, 2:44PM ET: This article was updated with comment from Google.

Comments

I wouldn’t necessarily trust Google in this space, but I have worked in lots of projects where "just moving headcount" to another project code was considered too much effort. Especially if you use things like SAP Success Factors and CATS.

I’d also be intrigued to know what the changes were, and would be worried if Google starts asking how these employees got access to such information. In some companies it would be a firable offence if you used your logins to access information like this relating to other projects and their budgets etc.

Well, since the original plan by CEO Pichai was to deploy this in China as the announcement so nobody could object (the blocker there was China not giving Google the OK), the name of the project is the name of the Google founder who pushed to have Google leave China on principle and CEO Pichai said they had "no plans" to launch (again because China hadn’t given them the okay, but that was left out of the statement) – its pretty obvious a whole lot of scheming has been going on by the current Google CEO to gain access to the billion shoe lace market.

It wouldn’t be prudent to trust what he says – his statements haven’t matched his actions. Probably best to assume you’ve got Ebenezer Scrooge in charge (before he found a conscience), also see the decision on hosting of the Saudi slave app of women, and plan accordingly (including whether you want to work for that…very sad considering their past).

Didn’t quite type this in correctly: the name of the project (Dragonfly) is the name of the Google founder’s (Sergey Brin) yacht, the guy who pushed for Google to leave China on principle.

"This speculation is wholly inaccurate. Quite simply: there’s no work happening on Dragonfly," a Google representative told The Verge. "As we’ve said for many months, we have no plans to launch Search in China and there is no work being undertaken on such a project. Team members have moved to new projects."

Is it weird that I thought of the penultimate scene of The Bourne Identity while reading Google’s statement?

- The Treadstone Project has already been terminated. It was designed primarily as a sort of advanced game program. We’d hoped it might build into a good training platform… but, quite honestly, for a strictly theoretical exercise… the cost-benefit ratio was just too high. It’s all but decommissioned at this point.
- All right. What’s next?
- Okay. This is… Blackbriar. Blackbriar is a joint D.O.D. communications program… that we really feel has good traction. It’s got legs. It’ll run and run.

"We find it shocking that Google would lie," said Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, Yahoo et al.

Pretty easy to check isn’t it? Go go China and type in Google.com, if you get a time-out, case closed.

But that’s not really what people are worried about is it, what they’re really thinking is what if Project Dragonfly’s codebase is intended for deployment on Google’s main site

thats not how development works, you don’t work on an active website you work on it offline.

Dragonfly is almost certainly not dead. But Google has learned the value of compartmentalizing and "regular" Google employees are in for a shock.

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