Google Steps Back from China; McKinsey in Deep

Google Steps Back from China; McKinsey in Deep

In August The Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher revealed that Google had been working in secret on a search engine with censorship and surveillance capabilities aimed at allowing it to operate under China’s strict internet controls. "Project Dragonfly" prompted a fierce backlash both within the company and beyond. Now, Gallagher reports that the project has "effectively ended," citing two sources within the company and the abandonment of a market research "honeypot" used to harvest Chinese users’ search queries and identify results to be hidden.

Under normal company protocol, analysis of people’s search queries is subject to tight constraints and should be reviewed by the company’s privacy staff, whose job is to safeguard user rights. But the privacy team only found out about the data access after The Intercept revealed it, and were “really pissed,” according to one Google source. Members of the privacy team confronted the executives responsible for managing Dragonfly. Following a series of discussions, two sources said, Google engineers were told that they were no longer permitted to continue using the data to help develop Dragonfly, which has since had severe consequences for the project.

“The 265 data was integral to Dragonfly,” said one source. “Access to the data has been suspended now, which has stopped progress.”

[…] Significantly, several groups of engineers have now been moved off of Dragonfly completely, and told to shift their attention away from China to instead work on projects related to India, Indonesia, Russia, the Middle East and Brazil.

[…] Last week, Pichai, Google’s CEO, appeared before Congress, where he faced questions on Dragonfly. Pichai stated that “right now” there were no plans to launch the search engine, though refused to rule it out in the future. Google had originally aimed to launch Dragonfly between January and April 2019. However, leaks about the plan and the extraordinary backlash that ensued both internally and externally appear to have forced company executives to shelve it at least in the short term, two sources familiar with the project said. [Source]

A group of Google employees who had protested against the project sounded a note of caution:


Some had reservations about the news, however.

Read more on hopes for "a Project Dragonfly that does something genuinely positive and valuable for the ordinary people of China" from Google’s Yonatan Zunger and from Citizen Lab’s Lotus Ruan, via CDT.

At The New York Times on Saturday, meanwhile, Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe examined the deeper and longer-established Chinese dealings of another American corporate giant, management consultants McKinsey & Company. McKinsey’s past and present clients, according to the report, include at least 22 of the 100 largest Chinese SOEs and 9 of the top 20 Belt and Road contractors, while its work in and involving China is part of a broader trend in which the company has "helped raise the stature of authoritarian and corrupt governments across the globe." McKinsey’s arguments in defense of this activity echo those offered by Google executives over Project Dragonfly. The article opens with a corporate retreat in the Xinjiang desert:

About four miles from where the McKinsey consultants discussed their work, which includes advising some of China’s most important state-owned companies, a sprawling internment camp had sprung up to hold thousands of ethnic Uighurs — part of a vast archipelago of indoctrination camps where the Chinese government has locked up as many as one million people.

[…] But the political backdrop did not appear to bother the McKinsey consultants, who posted pictures on Instagram chronicling their Disney-like adventures. In fact, McKinsey’s involvement with the Chinese government goes much deeper than its odd choice to showcase its presence in the country.

[…] One of McKinsey’s state-owned clients has even helped build China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, a major point of military tension with the United States.

[…] McKinsey defends its work around the world, saying that it will not accept jobs at odds with the company’s values. It also gives the same reason that other companies cite for working in corrupt or authoritarian nations — that change is best achieved from the inside. [Source]

The article touches on McKinsey’s involvement with Chinese investments abroad, the "Smart Cities" program, and the now downplayed "Made in China 2025" initiative, as well as on the firm’s brief employment of former Premier Wen Jiabao’s son-in-law. Forsythe elaborated on this side of the story in a Twitter thread.


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