Bala Murali Krishna
Google last week publicly acknowledged a plan, dubbed Dragonfly, to launch a “censored” search service in China that would filter out terms such as “human rights”, “democracy” and perhaps “Tiananmen Square”.
Even when it was rumoured several weeks ago, the move drew widespread condemnation. Five Google engineers have reportedly quit over the plan. The Trump administration has minced no words about Google’s bid, amid an escalating trade war with China that threatens to spill over to election meddling and much more.
Speaking at a conference to commemorate Wired magazine’s 25th anniversary, Google CEO Sundar Pichai offered a numerical, not ethical, defence of the controversial plan. China would censor less than 1 percent of the likely search queries, he said, and “we felt that it was important for us to explore.”
If Pichai’s plan succeeds, it will return Google to a country it left because Chinese hackers mounted a cyberattack on Google’s servers and hacked the Gmail accounts of human-rights activists, endangering lives. The decision to exit China was made when co-founder Sergey Brin, a Moscow-born American with a close understanding of repressive regimes, had a say in how Google was run.
So what has changed for Google to kowtow back in? Probably nothing.
In those eight years since Google exited China, the rest of the world has advanced in such areas as free speech, human rights and dignity, minority rights, gender disparity, net neutrality, privacy and, may I say, the right to free and fair search online. China recognises few, if not all, of those ideals, and continues to abuse most, and its hacking has worsened.
It’s far from clear what Google’s return to China will do, except endorse the Great Firewall — as the nation’s tightly controlled Internet is called — and perhaps emboldening the authoritarian regime in its quest for global domination. Pichai prefers to turn a blind eye to all that, and instead dwell on “how important the market is, and how many users there are (1.4 billion),” while professing to “take a long-term view.” To be fair, Google is not alone in targeting the large market, or alone in bowing to China.
Facebook has desperately sought to enter the forbidden market, and there are mixed reports on the fate of its bid in July to open an office in China. Apple this year started storing Chinese users’ data on Chinese servers controlled by a State-owned company in a big concession to its second-largest market, behind the United States; and Jeffrey Bezos would likely do just about anything to get Amazon back into a market in which it was roundly trounced by Alibaba over a decade ago.
Still, Google is not Apple, Amazon or Facebook. It is far more important. It doesn’t just sell stuff or build flaky Internet communities. It controls search, arguably the most powerful tool on the Internet. Consequently, Google might be the world’s most powerful Internet company, but even more importantly, it is a key custodian of the free Internet.
With great power comes great responsibility. It can’t be seen manipulating search, or silencing free speech on the Internet. Google rightly rejected an internal plan to rig search results in a push against Trump’s immigration policies. In the future, it could be confronted by an equally large market like India demanding “censorship” of the Internet.
Consequently, it is important for Google to carefully, and fully, consider the global consequences of its Chinese bid and not rush in as The Intercept suggests, quoting Google’s search engine chief Ben Gomes as telling the team developing Dragonfly to be ready for the censored search engine to be “brought off the shelf and quickly deployed.”
The caution might be even more relevant, considering the several missteps Pichai has made just this year.
There was the issue of defence contracts from the Pentagon involving controversial use of artificial intelligence. When hundreds of staff engineers protested and signed a memorandum urging Google to withdraw, Pichai was initially defiant, and backtracked several months later.
In August, he rebuffed the US Congress by sending a lower ranked executive when invited by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to answer questions on protecting the US midterm elections. When next month he called off an Asia tour to visit Capitol Hill, he was rebuffed by two senators.
And just this month, Google was caught hiding a breach at its Google+ social networking platform, involving more than half a million accounts. The hacking had happened in March — about the same time Facebook was battling the Cambridge Analytica scandal — but Google chose to not disclose it. It revealed the breach eventually only when it was going to be outed by The Wall Street Journal.
Pichai might be taking a similar approach with Dragonfly, expecting to ride out the opposition. At the Wired conference, for example, he pushed back against opposition from fellow engineers. “Throughout Google’s history, we’ve given our employees a lot of voice and say,” he said. “But we don’t run the company by holding referendums.”
But Dragonfly, more than any other in the history of the company that famously proclaimed, “Don’t be evil”, calls out for wiser counsel and perhaps a referendum of sorts.
(Bala Murali Krishna works for a New York-based startup. Views expressed are personal)