Protesters gathered outside the offices of Google in London on Friday to demonstrate against its controversial Project Dragonfly, a censored search engine for China.
A group of activists turned up to the demonstration at midday, demanding the company scraps the alleged plans over concerns about freedom of speech and internet security.
In August last year, a report claimed the internet firm was developing a version of its search services for the country that would not display information blocked by the Chinese government, leading to a widespread outcry.
“Any searches for Tibet, human rights, democracy, will be heavily filtered, leaving people with almost no information that we would like them to see,” explained John Jones, campaigns and advocacy manager for Free Tibet, who co-organised the event.
A total of 12 demonstrations have been organised outside Google offices across the world, set up by a coalition of human rights groups including International Tibet Network, SumOfUs and Tibet Society.
Campaigners are also concerned China’s cyber security laws would require Google to hand over what Chinese nationals have searched online and arrest or imprison them for it, Mr Jones said.
Management including chief executive Sundar Pichai have ruled out any immediate plans to launch the product in China.
Giving evidence to a US House committee in December, Mr Pichai said it was only an “internal effort”.
“Right now there are no plans to launch search in China,” he said at the time, although he admitted the company had more than 100 people working on it at one point.
“We have explored what search could look like if it were launched in a country like China.”
Campaigners say there is a contradiction between what executives have said publicly and what staff have claimed.
“There’s been leak after leak from inside Google by concerned staff, who are very concerned about it and they are well aware of what’s been going on,” Mr Jones said.
“They say it’s been going on since at least spring 2017 – people have resigned over it, they’ve written open letters inside the company about it, there is no question that it is happening and it’s getting increasingly ridiculous for the executives to try to deny it.”
China’s internet is closely monitored by government, with western sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram blocked entirely, and free speech on issues including political opposition banned.
Google shut down its first Chinese search engine in 2010.
In response to Friday’s protest, a Google spokeswoman said: “We’ve been investing for many years to help Chinese users, from developing Android, through mobile apps such as Google Translate and Files Go, and our developer tools.
“But our work on search has been exploratory and we are not close to launching a search product in China.”