Google Employees Face Moral and Ethical Issues When Developing Censorship Tools for China
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA – August 18, 2018
On Thursday The New Your Times published the article “Google Employees Protest Secret Work on Censored Search Engine for China” detailing how “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.”
According to the NYT, there is a letter circulating on Google’s internal communication systems, which has already been signed by 1,400 employees.
Google pulled out of China in 2010, alleging Chinese hackers had attacked the company’s corporate infrastructure in an attempt to gain access to the Gmail accounts of human rights activists. The attack, combined with government censorship, propelled Google to pull its search engine from the country.
Google is interested in bringing search back to China and re-entering the world’s biggest internet market. Even though its flagship services are not accessible in China, Google has maintained a significant presence in the country. Google still maintains more than 700 employees in China, and last year unveiled plans to open an Artificial Intelligence-focused research center there. In June, it invested $550 million in the Chinese online retailer JD.com.
Eight years after their very public falling out, the company is working on a search app that restricts content banned by the Chinese authorities and would allow it to re-enter the Chinese market.
However, allowing one of America’s largest firms to resume operations doesn’t appear to be in the interests of Beijing’s Made in China 2025 plan which aims to dominate certain strategic hi-tech industries, when taking into consideration that the trade war between the world’s two largest economies is now escalating almost daily and that the U.S. has positioned China in National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) as an official enemy.
"The content of this law abounds in Cold War thinking, exaggerates the level of the China-US confrontation, interferes in China's internal affairs, violates the One-China principle and three China-US communiques, undermines the atmosphere of development of China-US military ties, damages China-US mutual trust and cooperation," the Chinese Defense Ministry's statement said this month.
China clearly realizes all the risks of granting to the U.S. companies unrestricted access to the world’s largest base of internet users. Apple has been forced to remove VPN software — which allows users to leap over the Great Firewall — from its China app store and to store Chinese users’ personal data in Chinese government-linked servers. Skype and WhatsApp are now blocked in China. AirBnB has had to store data for Chinese customers on local servers to avoid the same fate. It’s also uncertain whether the Chinese government would be willing to allow even a censored version of Google.
Google’s Chinese search app code-named Dragonfly will automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall. When a person carries out a search, banned websites will be removed from the first page of results, and a disclaimer will be displayed stating that “some results may have been removed due to statutory requirements.” Examples cited in the documents of websites that will be subject to the censorship include those of British news broadcaster BBC and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, The Intercept reported this month.
This definitely falls in contradiction with Google’s public principles to “object forces of totalitarianism”, when it came to censorship, political speech and internet communications, but the U.S. is desperately looking for the opportunity to collect Chinese users private information, marketing preferences and other sensitive data.
It is quite clear why Google’s workforce is demanding answers over the company’s secretive plans to build a search engine that will comply with censorship in China.
“To make ethical choices, Googlers need to know what we’re building. Right now we don’t,” their letter says.
“Here, we address an underlying structural problem: currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment. That the decision to build Dragonfly was made in secret, and progressed even with the AI Principles in place makes clear that the Principles alone are not enough,” said the statement.
In the letter, Google employees are asking leadership to work with them to implement concrete transparency and oversight processes called “Code Yellow” including “the appointment of ombudspeople” and “an ethical assessment of Dragonfly, Maven, and Airgap GCP”.
It would be interesting to see, how long it would take Google employees to realize the ethical consequences of their own work in terms of “censorship, political speech and internet communications” when it comes to suspending Google and YouTube accounts of independent media?
On August 6th Google’s service YouTube has banned “The Alex Jones Channel,” which counts 2.4 million subscribers. On July 4th, which is very symbolic, Google also terminated USA Really's accounts on YouTube, Google+, Gmail and other services without any copyright strikes, warnings or explanations.
So far there was no information that Google or YouTube employees spoke out against their own political censorship practice, and there are no signs that Google will change this oppressive policy in the future.