Google shouldn't proceed with a planned search engine tailor-made for China's tightly censored internet, overseas rights groups have said.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other groups and rights activists called in a letter to the company this week for the company to respect human rights, and to stop collaborating with Beijing to censor potential Chinese users.
"Google has promised to respect human rights and only develop technology that benefits society," senior HRW internet researcher Cynthia Wong said in a statement.
"Yet Google has failed to explain how it will shield users from the Chinese government’s efforts to monitor and suppress dissent," she said.
Writing to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, the groups cite media reports that the company is developing a mobile search app as part of a project code-named Dragonfly that would comply with Chinese censorship and other legal requirements.
Signed by more than a dozen groups and individuals, the letter calls on Pichai to clarify Google’s approach to China and what steps it is taking to safeguard users from the Chinese government’s abusive censorship and surveillance regimes.
Google has declined to "speculate" publicly to questions from the media and rights groups about the reports.
Meanwhile, BuzzFeed News cited internal employee discussions as saying that several team members had quit Dragonfly over ethical concerns about the project and the surrounding secrecy.
China's complex network of blocks, filters and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall already ensures that popular foreign websites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are hard to access for the majority of Chinese users.
Government censors also prevent keyword searches linked to politically sensitive topics, including the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, dissidents and any form of political opposition.
Examples cited by The Intercept based on confidential leaked Google documents include U.K. public broadcaster the BBC and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
For some blacklisted queries, no results will be shown at all, and the blacklists will extend to image searches, spell checks and search suggestions, the report said.
The proposed new Google app will comply with current restrictions, removing banned websites from the first page of results.
U.S.-based legal scholar Teng Biao said the Dragonfly project was a surprise turnaround for the company.
"Google said not so long ago in a statement that it had no plans to return to China," Teng said. "The fact that a lot of high-profile rights organizations have written to Google warning it not to provide search engine services to the Chinese government means that Google will return to China sooner or later."
"This letter warns Google against collaborating with the Chinese Communist Party and against revealing the personal details of dissidents to the Chinese authorities," he said.
The Intercept cited anonymous Google employees who worked on Project Dragonfly as saying that they were told in July to have the project in “launch-ready state” pending approval from Chinese officials.
U.S.-based rights activist Liu Qing said the concerted campaign against a censored Google Search for China should wake major corporations up to the knowledge that collaborating with Beijing should be an unthinkable prospect.
"Naturally, companies can't entirely throw off the allure of the markets and of capital," Liu said. "But I hope that Google doesn't go back to China in the same manner that Yahoo did at the start, and begin turning over the data of dissidents to the Communist Party."
"In the end, Yahoo's compliant attitude to the Chinese government led to their leaving the China market entirely, so cooperating with the Chinese Communist Party doesn't always yield the results people hope it will," he said.
In 2005, Chinese journalist Shi Tao, who circulated a government order to suppress media commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, was jailed for 10 years after Yahoo handed over his e-mail records to the authorities.
Google left China in 2010 after a showdown with China's ruling Communist Party over internet censorship, and currently redirects Chinese language users from the mainland to a search site run from its Hong Kong-based servers.
China has blocked access to Google search, YouTube, and Picasa photographs continually since 2009, according to Google's Transparency Report.
Reported by Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.