A Chinese national flag sways in front of Google China's headquarters in Beijing on January 14, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

(New York) – Stakeholders and shareholders in Google and Facebook should urge the companies not to exchange user rights for access to China’s market, Human Rights Watch said. According to reporting in The Intercept, Google has been developing a search engine app to comply with China’s expansive censorship requirements. Facebook previously developed a censored version of its service for China, though never launched it.

The US Congress, European Parliament, and other legislatures around the world should express concern at US companies who are cooperating with China’s censorship and surveillance, Human Rights Watch said.

“Technology companies should be challenging China’s censorship – not complicit in it,” said Cynthia Wong, senior internet researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Shareholders in Google and Facebook who care about human rights should urge these companies not to compromise them for access to China’s market.”

Leaked documents examined by The Intercept describe the company’s plans to launch a censored version of its search engine as an Android app. According to the media report, Google has already demonstrated the app to Chinese officials and is waiting for approval for launch. The project, code-named Dragonfly, has been in development since spring 2017. According to reporting by The Intercept, work on the project accelerated following a meeting between Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Chinese government officials in December 2017, and the app could launch in the next six to nine months. The company is also in talks with potential Chinese partners to provide other cloud services inside the country, according to separate media reports.

Human Rights Watch reached out to Google to ask how it proposes to safeguard human rights as it seeks to expand its products and services in China. HRW had not received a response for the record at time of this publication.

China’s extensive censorship regime restricts a wide range of peaceful expression that officials deem politically sensitive, including criticism of government policy and information that does not conform to official narratives. China’s Great Firewall Internet filtering system blocks websites at the national level, including Google and Facebook services. Broadly drafted laws also require social media services, search engines, and websites that host user content to censor politically sensitive information on its behalf. The government issues vaguely worded censorship orders and expects companies to proactively restrict access to broad categories of information.

“Google withdrew from China in 2010 because the human rights and cybersecurity environment was too precarious,” Wong said. “Since then, China renewed its crackdown on rights and enacted new laws that conscript tech firms in censorship and surveillance, but the company hasn’t explained how this time will be any better.”

According to media reports, Google’s custom Chinese search app would comply with the censorship regime by automatically identifying and filtering sites blocked by the Great Firewall. Filtered sites would not be shown in response to searches, and the company would notify the user that some results may have been removed. Examples of websites that would be censored include the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Wikipedia, according to documents seen by The Intercept.

Google is not the only US internet company considering whether to censor to seek access to the Chinese market. In November 2016, the New York Times reported that Facebook was developing software “to suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas,” specifically “to help Facebook get into China.” The report states that Facebook would “offer the software to enable a third party—in this case, most likely a partner Chinese company—to monitor popular stories and topics,” and would allow that third party to “have full control to decide whether those posts should show up in users’ feeds.”

Facebook’s formal entry into China would raise many of the same human rights concerns faced by Google. Facebook holds highly sensitive information about its users’ networks and affiliations, which the government may demand the company disclose. Online activists could be particularly at risk because of Facebook’s policy of requiring users to employ an “authentic identity” – a name that is commonly used by family and friends, that might also be found on certain types of identity documents. Human rights organizations and officials, including Human Rights Watch and United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye, have long criticized this policy, because it can chill online expression and is also likely to be disproportionately enforced against those who use pseudonyms because they are at risk of reprisals.

In 2016, Human Rights Watch wrote to Facebook to ask whether the proposed system would proceed and how Facebook intends to avoid complicity with Chinese state censorship, and also asked how Facebook would protect its users from abusive surveillance and reprisals for their online activity if Facebook launches a version of their application that complies with Chinese law. In a written response, Facebook stated that “at this time we have not concluded how or when access to Facebook could be restored for people in China, recognizing the principal role the Chinese government plays in making this decision” and that “as we continue to study this market, we will consider the important points you raise.”

In May 2017, Facebook quietly launched a photo-sharing app, Colorful Balloons, in China through a local company without a public connection to Facebook. The company has also unsuccessfully sought to open an innovation hub and subsidiaries in China.

In August 2018, Human Rights Watch again contacted Facebook for updates to its approach to China. HRW had not received a response for the record at time of this publication.

From 2006 to 2010, Google ran a censored version of its search engine in China. In March 2010, the company announced it would stop censoring search results in China, citing concerns about online censorship, surveillance, and cyber-attacks directed at the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. As a result, the search engine has remained inaccessible to mainland Chinese users, along with other Google services.

Since 2010, the Chinese government has only broadened and intensified its crackdown on human rights, especially after President Xi Jinping took power in 2013. In recent years, authorities have tightened censorship requirements, restricted access to censorship circumvention tools, and strengthened ideological control over all media. In 2017, the government shut down dozens of social media accounts, called on internet companies to “actively promote socialist core values,” and passed stricter regulations to require real-name registration, disabling people from protecting their identities if they engaged in disfavored speech. Authorities have subjected more human rights defenders, including foreigners, to show trials, subjected them to torture, and often held them incommunicado for months.

The government has significantly broadened mass surveillance efforts using big data and artificial intelligence-driven technology across China, particularly in the minority region of Xinjiang. The government also recently enacted laws that impose new requirements on companies to facilitate online surveillance. The Cybersecurity Law requires certain technology companies to retain, store, and disclose user data inside China and monitor and report “network security incidents.” Other new rules require app providers to keep user logs for 60 days to reduce the spread of “illegal information.” Under Chinese law, “security incidents” and “illegal information” are often defined broadly to encompass peaceful criticism of the government.

The Chinese government’s intensified offensive against human rights makes the timing of Google’s and Facebook’s actions particularly troubling and disappointing, Human Rights Watch said.

Google already provides two apps in China, Google Translate and file management app Files Go, though its own app store, Google Play, remains blocked. However, offering services via mobile phone apps raises additional human rights concerns that were not present when Google first entered China in 2006, when smart phones were not ubiquitous. Mobile applications can access extraordinarily sensitive data stored on phones, including contact lists, files, messages, photos, device identifiers, and location information, and can also turn on a phone’s camera and microphone if given permission by the user. Often users approve access without fully understanding the personal data that would be available. Such personal data would be more vulnerable to monitoring and collection by mobile service providers and public security agencies in China.

“US tech companies shouldn’t enter China until they can show they won’t become repression’s helping hands,” said Wong. “In the current human rights environment, that seems unlikely.”