China: Is Google betraying its ideals?
A staff revolt is brewing at Google, said Ryan Gallagher in TheIntercept.com. The furor began earlier this month with the revelation that a few hundred of the tech giant’s 88,000 employees had been secretly working on a project named Dragonfly: an Android search app for China that would comply with the regime’s strict censorship rules. It would “blacklist sensitive queries,” so searches on subjects such as democracy, human rights, Tiananmen Square, and political dissent would yield no results. The project marks a turnaround for Google, which pulled its search service from China in 2010, citing Beijing’s efforts to limit free speech and hack Google’s computer systems. Google’s bending to Beijing’s totalitarian whims angered many of the company’s employees. At least 1,400 have signed a letter stating that Dragonfly raises “urgent moral and ethical issues” and could potentially violate Google’s own ethical code, which says the company will not build technologies that contravene principles of international law or human rights.
Google was following its founding motto, “Don’t be evil,” when it quit China eight years ago, said The Washington Post in an editorial. But now “the company is feeling the pull of a market of more than 750 million internet users, a potentially lucrative source of revenue.” The tech firm has already tiptoed back into China—it has 700 employees there, including some at an artificial intelligence research center. But the launch of a censored search app would “put Google’s imprimatur on the largest and most pervasive authoritarian system in the world.” Other autocrats would quickly demand similar services, “making Google an accomplice to repression.”
Actually, such a search engine might aid the cause of freedom in China, said Thomas Jungbauer in WashingtonPost.com. Disclaimers about blocked sites “would serve as a constant reminder of the state’s ubiquitous censorship.” Google could “upend the status quo, little by little.” Just look at how Communist regimes were undermined by the slow trickle of knowledge from the West during the Cold War. If Silicon Valley really wants to be a force for good, it must engage with the people living in authoritarian nations, not “stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be.”
Still, leaping into China is a “dangerous game,” for Google, said Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal. “Don’t be evil” meant that Google kept itself to a higher standard than other companies. Many talented people want to work at Google not because of the “catered meals and ample pay,” but because “they are stirred by its idealistic mission.” If Google compromises on that, they’ll leave. That would be a bad outcome for both global democracy and Google itself. ■