Google’s plans to relaunch its ironic search engine in China as a fully censored app have sparked outrage among the tech giant’s users and employees. In 2010, Google began rerouting Chinese users to the Hong Kong based google.com.hk from google.cn, which censored content served to Chinese users while alerting them to that fact, after more than 20 Western companies were targeted by hackers believed to have connections to the Chinese government. Although Google as a brand retreated from the Chinese market, it continued to operate in China via Hong Kong as well as through its ownership of sites like 265.com and partnership with companies like Beijing Guxiang Information and Technology Co. Under the covert Dragonfly project, a small team of Google employees has been secretly working on a product meant to reintroduce Google into the Chinese market. For many, the lack of transparency on behalf of Google leadership raises numerous ethical concerns.
The Chinese Communist Party has shown its willingness to welcome Google back into China under the condition of complying with Chinese laws, which include Beijing’s alleged right to censor the internet. Recognizing efforts on behalf of President Xia Jinping to consolidate power and tighten his grip in the Chinese Peoples, what compliance means can be an extremely frightening prospect. For Google engineers and the employees of other tech firms hoping to access the Chinese market, it is an ethical quandary. On the one hand, Google has the tools needed to give the Chinese People greater access to the knowledge of the world. On the other hand, compliance, at best, means conspiring with the Chinese government to prevent people from accessing information Beijing does not want the public talking about. It also means Google is lending its credibility to the propaganda of the Communist Party by legitimizing it in its search results and blacking out the existence of alternative views. In truth, the ethical issues are far more serious.
Google’s founders had intended the search company to be an ethical business. They even included the phrase “don’t be evil” in their code of conduct, which was later replaced with "do the right thing" when the umbrella corporation Alphabet was formed to act as Google’s parent company. In recent years, Google has gone as far as withdrawing from its partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense at the protest of employees and as a sign of its ethical commitment. Project Maven sought to search drone footage for humans with the aid of artificial intelligence. The A.I. would not necessarily take control of the drones and fire any killing shot. Google had, of course, also acquired Boston Dynamics, which had been fattened by US taxpayer dollars, with the explicit knowledge of its relationship with the US military. Although Google was helping the Pentagon develop more precise killing machines, it was helping to reduce collateral damage. In the case of Chinese censorship, there is likely no such redeeming benefit as Baidu already provides users with a censored search engine tailored to their language. More importantly, the costs can be just as inhumane.
Given China’s record on human rights, which includes the recently discovered mass detention of nearly one million ethnic Uighurs, Google’s attempts to comply with Beijing’s edicts could lead to the company supporting human rights’ violation or the deaths of political dissidents. Google email accounts were hacked by Chinese actors before its 2010 retreat, because activists felt safe in the hands of Google and Beijing fully understood that. The Chinese Communist Party needs dissenters to reveal themselves. They need to know who is working against the Chinese government, what they are saying, and how they can counter their messages. The Chinese Peoples know state-connected internet services are being monitored and they know how to avoid entrapment. Google, on the other hand, has a global reputation as an entity willing to refuse the data requests of powerful governments, including the US government. At the same time, Google amasses 23, 000 pages of data on the average user every 15 days. If China could compel Google to handover even the most innocuous metadata on users or gain easier access to Google’s databases, it could revolutionize the way it oppressors dissenters.
Due to the prevalence of local competitor Baidu, which Google could not previously displace as the top search engine in China, and its limited expertise in the Chinese language, analysts do not expect Google’s foray back into the Chinese market to pan out. With a population of 1.4 billion people and nearly 800 million internet users, China is a tempting market for technology firms like Google. The simple truth is, however, that Beijing always shows a preference for its own national companies while extracting a heavy price from any and all foreign owned businesses attempting to profit off Chinese consumers. Gains from the Chinese market are, at best, hard earned and short-lived. More importantly, opportunities in China only arise, because the Communist Party has a need. China does not need another search engine nor an ad platform. What it needs are companies with the technology and credibility needed to lure political dissidents out of the shadows. What Beijing wants are new tools of oppression. Not only can Google help provide them, it can lure users into a false sense of security, so they are more willing to reveal their alleged disloyalty to the Chinese government.
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