Google’s ambitions for building censor-friendly Chinese search and news aggregation apps face an enemy within. There had already been rumblings about employee discontent, but now the internal pushback against the “Dragonfly” initiative is plain to see.
As initially reported by The New York Times, as many as 1,400 Google employees have signed a letter complaining that they “currently…do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions” about their work, projects, and employment.
They aren’t happy that they only found out about Dragonfly through news reports this month, the letter notes: “That the decision to build Dragonfly was made in secret, and progressed even with the AI Principles in place makes clear that the Principles alone are not enough. We urgently need more transparency, a seat at the table, and a commitment to clear and open processes: Google employees need to know what we’re building.”
The letter also references the internal revolt over Project Maven, the Pentagon deal in which Google AI was to analyze drone footage—a role that some at Google saw as potentially helping to mark people for death.
Are Google’s employees (well, some of them) right to push back in this way? Opinions are divided on that front, but here’s what’s clear: nobody should be surprised to see this sort of internal activism gaining pace, particularly at a company like Google.
Google has always painted itself not just as a mission-driven organization, but also as a values-driven place to work. On the one side, its employees have the directive “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” which is why some say it’s important to be present in China, no matter what that takes. At the same time, they signed a code of conduct that literally tells them: “Don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right—speak up!”
Well, they’re doing just that. But are these Google employees right to see acquiescence to Chinese censorship as the wrong path? Again, they can’t be blamed for taking their cue from the top. When the company pulled out of China in 2010, co-founder Sergey Brin (who is still their boss, as president of parent company Alphabet) stressed how “opposing censorship and speaking out for the freedom of political dissent” was Google’s “key issue.”
Here’s what Brin said then about the argument that being present in China is more useful than absence: “You can always make the argument that a little bit is better than nothing. At some point you have to stand back and challenge this and say, this goes beyond the line of what we’re comfortable with and adopt that for moral reasons.”
Google’s internal dissent is supposed to be part of its corporate culture. Let’s hope the company’s leadership keeps that fact in mind as it deals with the current revolt.
This story originally appeared in CEO Daily, Fortune’s daily newsletter on succeeding big in business. Subscribe here.