Google Wanted to Change China, but is China Changing Google?

August 30, 2018 - 9 minutes read

In the early days of Google, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin probably didn’t ever imagine that their main motto, “Don’t be evil,” would be the center of controversy 20 years later.

In 2004, the founders told investors at Google’s initial public offering (IPO), “Google is not a conventional company,” and added that they planned to put their long-term mission above short-term finance-related gains. But with recent events involving China, many are wondering if this still holds true.

A Colorful History With China

In 2010, just six years after their IPO, Google pulled their technology out of China, tired of following Chinese government laws surrounding censorship in search results. At the time, this set a huge example for the rest of the San Francisco development scene: don’t ever give up your values to make a government or investors happy.

But the move wasn’t without regrets. An official statement from Google back in 2010 sheds some light on the company’s perspective: “Failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world’s population, however, … far more severely [compromises our mission].”

Since then, China’s become the largest smartphone market in the world, surpassing the U.S. and India. The country is also leading in terms of highest annual app revenue and the largest number of app downloads. These facts could not be ignored by Google, the creator of Android.

Re-Entering China’s Market

Earlier this year, Google partnered with Chinese mobile development companies like Tencent, Huawei, Baidu, and Xiaomi to distribute the Google Play Store in China. Many speculators believed this was the first of many moves to re-enter the Chinese market. And they were right.

Google recently agreed to create another censored search engine for China; these plans were leaked by an employee. Of course, hundreds of Google employees have signed a letter asking for transparency in the ethical implications of their daily work.

This isn’t the first time in 2018 that Google employees have had to sign a letter of discontent; thousands recently expressed their disappointment in hearing the news that the company planned to work with the U.S. Pentagon to create an AI for drones.

And Google isn’t just going after current product markets; it’s looking ahead to the future. The company plans to build an AI lab in Beijing and invest in Chinese AI startups that it deems promising.

Are Google’s Principles Aligned With People or Profit?

For most people, actions speak louder than words, so Google’s virtue of “don’t be evil” doesn’t make as much of an impression as agreeing to work with the U.S. Pentagon on a controversial drone project or going back to China just to make more money.

But Sundar Pichai begs to differ, citing that if his father hadn’t worked for a U.K.-based company, he would never have come close to becoming Google’s CEO. Overall, Pichai’s sentiment echoes the importance of bringing access to the “outside world” to impoverished and regime-controlled citizens.

Ben Wizner is the Director of the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. He thinks Google needs to put their money where their mouth is and not where the highest market share might be. “If Google wants to be judged like any other global company, that’s fine. They should just say so — that their principal obligation is to their shareholders and their bottom line,” he says.

“But that has not been the rhetoric coming out of Google, and I think it’s fair to judge them by the standards they have set for themselves,” Wizner explains.

Two Sides to Technology

When the company first pulled out of China in 2010, Brin compared China to the Soviet Union’s “totalitarian forces” that he’d grown up with. He said he hoped that Google’s move would change China to become laxer. But since then, China’s swung the complete opposite way of “lax”.

While other countries make strides to increase transparency with technology, China’s been beefing up their use of it. The European Union recently told Google that European citizens have a “right to be forgotten” online; upon request, search engines must remove all articles, profiles, and information containing that person’s name or identity.

On the other side of the equation, China has increased censorship, started publicly embarrassing citizens for jaywalking, and heavily pushed facial recognition for police use.

Rebecca MacKinnon is an Internet freedom advocate at think-tank New America. She solemnly says, “This argument makes me very sad: The world is becoming more like China, so therefore we might as well be in China.” MacKinnon said that Google was no longer a reliable advocate of Internet speech, freedom, and privacy.

She adds, “I wrote a book where I warned that China is Exhibit A for how authoritarian governments adapt to the Internet and then begin to change the Internet. And if companies like Google are now throwing in the towel and saying, ‘Well, that’s where the Internet is going’ and ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ — well, that’s deeply troubling.”

Google’s Fleeting Identity

Shouldn’t someone with vast power, money, and influence be a leader in advocating for freedom and rights? Many people are worried that we’ve lost that leader in Google a long time ago; before the Pentagon controversy and before the gender gap letter from a disgruntled employee.

When a company starts seeing multi-billion dollar revenues from its willingness to leverage user data, it can be hard for it to stay steadfast in its morals. This type of profit would make anyone throw their values out of the window. But this isn’t just any company. It’s Google, one of the Internet pioneers and consistent advancers of many disruptive technologies today.

When (not if) Google reverses its position on search in China, it’ll have to comply with stricter rules and regulations than before. Pichai promised transparency surrounding the plan and rollout.

Fighting for Internet Freedom

But this isn’t satisfying advocates like Wizner. As Wizner explains, “If Google is trying to promote openness and free societies, then transparency is going to be an insufficient way to make this better. The transparency would be aimed at the rest of the world. Google wouldn’t be telling Chinese people, ‘Here’s what you can’t see.'”

Michael Posner, Professor of ethics and finance at New York University, also spoke about the menacing possibility of Google’s return to China: “Make no mistake, this will be a huge victory for the Chinese government and anyone else who wants to severely restrict the Internet.”

What do you think of Google’s renewed, strong interest in China and the Chinese tech scene? Would you sign the Google employee letter demanding to stay out of China or would you give a Google-China partnership a chance?

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