Google exited the Chinese market eight years ago in protest of the country’s censorship and online hacking. According to a report by The Intercept, the company is now working on a censored search engine for China that can filter websites and search terms backlisted by the Chinese government such as: human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest. The project is a code named “Dragonfly” and has been underway since the spring of 2017, the news website said.
This is the latest example of how American tech companies are tailoring their products to enter the lucrative Chinese market, even at the risk of suppressing free speech. Other examples include LinkedIn censoring contentin China and Facebook developing software to prevent specific posts from appearing on the social network with the objective of potentially using it in China.
The work on a censored search engine for China is causing widespread outcry among human rights activists. There is concern Google could block a long list of foreign websites including Facebook, Twitter, and the New York Times, as well as Chinese search queries on topics such as the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and information on Chinese leadership.
Earlier this year, Google’s leadership invited scrutiny into how committed they are to their values that are included in the Google Code of Conduct. The controversy over the proposed Chinese search engine comes after many Google employees protested the company’s involvement in a military program, known as Project Maventhat included artificial intelligence work.
- Google’s main search platform is blocked in China along with its video platform YouTube, and it has been attempting to make new inroads into China.
- In addition to the search app, Google is reportedly building a second app, focused on news aggregation, for the Chinese market, which would also comply with the country’s censorship laws.
- Google is building a network of Chinese app developers, manufacturers, and advertisers as it works from within to convince China to allow the censor friendly versions of its now banned web services into the country.
- When entering a new market, some companies believe they can lead change from within by showing respect for core human values and local traditions and that context matters when deciding what is right and wrong.
Quests and Actions (Q&A):
- If Google regains entry to China with its censor-friendly mobile search app, is this a violation of their pledge against the use of technology infringing on human rights?
- Since complaining to the U.S. government could set off retaliation from China, what recourse do American tech companies have that want access to China’s Internet market of 700 million when pressured for censorship by Beijing?
- How should companies balance business interests with political issues for new market growth? What criteria should be used?
Sources: Business Insider, China Digital Times, NYTimes, Reuters, The Intercept, WSJ
Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash
Update – August 16, 2018
Hundreds of Google employees, upset at the company’s decision to secretly build a censored version of its search engine for China, have signed a letter demanding more transparency to understand the ethical consequences of their work. This is the latest example of how Google’s outspoken work force has agitated for changes to strategy.
In a letter, obtained by the New York Times, employees wrote that the project and Google’s apparent willingness to abide by China’s censorship requirements “raise urgent moral and ethical issues.” They added, “Currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment.”
“We urgently need more transparency, a seat at the table, and a commitment to clear and open processes: Google employees need to know what we’re building,” the letter said.
The letter also called on Google to allow employees to participate in ethical reviews of the company’s products, to appoint external representatives to ensure transparency and to publish an ethical assessment of controversial projects. The document referred to the situation as a code yellow, a process used in engineering to address critical problems that impact several teams.
The letter is circulating on Google’s internal communication systems and is signed by about 1,400 employees, according to three people familiar with the document, who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Google has traditionally been more responsive to employee concerns and more transparent about future projects and inner workings than other major technology companies, inviting questions from workers at its staff meetings and encouraging internal debate.