Badiucao (巴丢草): Google CEO Defends China Plans

At the WIRED 25 Summit on Monday, CEO Sundar Pichai commented on the company’s plans, codenamed Project Dragonfly, to return to China with a new search engine. Its prospective accommodation of official and surveillance has sparked vocal protests both within and outside Google. Pichai defended the plans while swiping at prospective competitor Baidu and its past medical scandals. From Nitasha Tiku at Wired:

“It turns out we’ll be able to serve well over 99 percent of the queries,” that users request. What’s more, “There are many, many areas where we would provide information better than what’s available,” such as searching for cancer treatments, Pichai said. “Today people either get fake cancer treatments or they actually get useful information.”

While onstage at the event, Pichai did not back away from Google’s controversial decision to build a censored search engine in China. In fact, he doubled down on the search engine, codenamed Project Dragonfly, saying the potential to expose the world to more information is guiding Google’s push into China. “We are compelled by our mission [to] provide information to everyone, and [China is] 20 percent of the world’s population.”

Pichai was careful to emphasize that this was a decision that weighs heavy on the company. “People don’t understand fully, but you’re always balancing a set of values,” in every new country, he said. Those values include providing access to information, freedom of expression, and user privacy. “But we also follow the rule of law in every country,” he said.

This is a reversal of a decision from about eight years, when Google pulled its search engine, which was also censored, from the Chinese market. Pichai said the time had come to reevaluate that choice. “It’s a wonderful, innovative market. We wanted to learn what it would look like if we were in China, so that’s what we built internally,” Pichai said. “Given how important the market is and how many users there are,” he added, “we feel obliged to think hard about this problem and take a longer-term view.” [Source]

Cartoonist responded:

On Twitter, he announced that actual, physical “MWGA” hats had been delivered to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View by Tiananmen student leader Zhou Fengsuo:

He followed up with thanks to Zhou for his “support and delivering service,” pointing out that “this project will also [be] presented in my first solo exhibition in Hong Kong. […] if Google really wants to help China […] it should concentrate on developing and promoting software which help Chinese defeat the Chinese internet filter and censorship instead of becoming a good looking block of the wall.”

Pichai is not alone in arguing that Google’s reentry could benefit Chinese users. From Yufan Huang, formerly at The New York Times, for example:

Human Rights Watch’s Yaqiu Wang responded:

The Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher, who first broke the Project Dragonfly story, was dismissive of Pichai’s claim about the percentage of blocked queries:

Last Friday, Gallagher reported Pichai’s evasive response to a letter from a bipartisan group of six senators, who expressed concern at Project Dragonfly:

In his letter to the senators, dated August 31, Pichai did not mention the word “censorship” or address human rights concerns. He told the senators that “providing access to information to people around the world is central to our mission,” and said he believed Google’s tools could “help to facilitate an exchange of information and learning.” The company was committed to “promoting access to information, freedom of expression, and user privacy,” he wrote, while also “respecting the laws of jurisdictions in which we operate.”

[…] Pichai did not answer nine specific questions the senators asked, including, “Which ‘blacklist’ of censored searches and websites are you using? Are there any phrases or words that Google is refusing to censor?”

Instead, Pichai wrote, “Google has been open about our desire to increase our ability to serve users in China and other countries. We are thoughtfully considering a variety of options for how to offer services in China in a way that is consistent with our mission. … [W]e can confirm that our work will continue to reflect our best assessment of how best to serve people around the world, as set forth in our mission and our code of conduct. Of course, should we have something to announce in the future, we would be more than happy to brief you and your staff on those plans.”

[Virginia Senator Mark] Warner told The Intercept he was “really disappointed with Google’s response,” which he said “failed to provide any information” about the censored search engine plan. “Any effort to get back into China could enable the Chinese government in repressing and manipulating their citizens,” said Warner. “Google owes us some honest answers, or it risks losing the trust of Congress and the public.” [Source]

The Washington Post also addressed Google’s opacity in an editorial on Tuesday:

This lack of transparency further weakens Google’s claim to the moral high ground. It took Google almost two months after the Intercept’s initial report even to acknowledge there was a Project Dragonfly, and Pichai finally confirmed the initiative Monday night. Now executives seem to think they owe no concrete answers to anyone as long as the search engine remains a prototype. But once that prototype has turned into a reality, it may be too late for criticism. Just as it was difficult for Google employees to know what they were working on when Dragonfly was still secret, now it is difficult for the public and Congress to have a say without all of the facts.

They should try to have their say anyway. Dragonfly defenders argue that Google’s involvement in China could actually open up the country. In reality, however, there is little room for technology companies to negotiate with the Chinese government over terms. Either they cave in to China’s blacklisting strictures in full, or they stay out. By reentering China with search, Google would be unlikely to provide consumers with services substantially better than those they already receive from Baidu and a censored version of Bing. The company would only expose itself to requests for information on users from the Chinese government, setting the precedent for capitulation to authoritarian demands from other countries.

The real difference between the defense contracts Google has decided run counter to its principles and the plan to bring a search engine back to China, apart from the likelihood of a financial windfall, seems to be the degree of organized discontent inside and outside the company. Google says it has not yet decided whether search in China is viable. All the more reason for people in the United States, from employees to members of Congress to everyday citizens, to speak up for what they believe. After all, Google’s potential customers in China do not enjoy that opportunity. [Source]

The New York Times editorial board examined Project Dragonfly in light of former Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s recent prediction of a divided global internet:

The received wisdom was once that a unified, unbounded web promoted democracy through the free flow of information. Things don’t seem quite so simple anymore. China’s tight control of the internet within its borders continues to tamp down talk of democracy, and an increasingly sophisticated system of digital surveillance plays a major role in human rights abuses, such as the persecution of the Uighurs. We’ve also seen the dark side to connecting people to one another — as illustrated by how misinformation on social media played a significant role in the violence in Myanmar.

[…] As governments push toward a splintered internet, American corporations do little to counteract Balkanization and instead do whatever is necessary to expand their operations. If the future of the internet is a tripartite cold war, Silicon Valley wants to be making money in all three of those worlds.

Part of the rationalization is that whether or not American companies get in on the action, a homegrown company will readily enact the kind of censorship and surveillance that its government requires. (Indeed, if Google launches in China, it has an uphill battle to fight against Baidu, the entrenched, government-endorsed Chinese search engine.) [Source]

Meanwhile, former Google News engineer Vijay Boyapati followed up on a September Twitter thread on Project Dragonfly after rediscovering old emails discussing Google’s earlier efforts to accommodate Chinese censorship demands. “[One] thing I find disturbing, after all these years,” he wrote, “is the willingness of my former colleagues to not only comply with the censorship but their enthusiasm in rationalizing it. […] I encourage employees of Google who have been asked to work on censored products to stand up against these requests, as I did in 2006, and make it known that Google’s willingness to censor is immoral.”

An internal corporate presentation leaked to Breitbart may offer further insight into thinking within the company. From Nick Statt at The Verge, who notes that “the slides make no mention of China, its historical approach to online censorship and social authoritarianism, or any plans to operate there”:

The slides are a rare and stark look at Google’s ongoing struggles, which are mirrored by many Silicon Valley tech platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, that now moderate a large swath of human conversation. Essentially, the company is asking itself whether it’s possible to protect against the negative aspects of free speech — violent threats, fake news, bots, trolling, propaganda, and election interference, to name just a few — while promoting a platform that gives everyone a voice. Google says in the presentation that the internet was founded on “utopian principles of free speech,” and that Silicon Valley was largely built under the guiding principles of those ideals.

[…] The presentation concludes that “are performing a balancing act between two incompatible positions,” and that’s the reason why censorship is on the rise as companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter take more heavy-handed approaches to moderation in response to heightened criticism. The slides conclude that transparency, consistency, and responsiveness are paramount in addressing this ongoing imbalance, and that there is not a “right amount of censorship” that will please everyone and solve these issues.

[…] In response to the leak, Google has said the research is not indicative of any official company position, but rather research to better understand how users think about these key issues. In a statement, the company told The Verge, “Google is committed to free expression — supporting the free flow of ideas is core to our mission. Where we have developed our own content policies, we enforce them in a politically neutral way. Giving preference to content of one political ideology over another would fundamentally conflict with our goal of providing services that work for everyone.” [Source]

At The Information, meanwhile, Shai Oster examines the legacy of Google’s earlier venture into China through the “dozens of onetime Google executives and engineers in China [who] have gone on to influential roles in China’s technology sector.”