Calling out Google's selective conscience
Google management's recent accommodation of Beijing's censors in exchange for business opportunities in China demonstrates a glaring unwillingness to uphold its much touted company values – the same set of values that it employed to end its A.I. work with the Pentagon recently.
The transactional decision by Google to set aside its former "Don't be evil" and current "Do the right thing" corporate mantras for the promise of the Chinese market demonstrates a disturbing inconsistency in the company's principles. Acquiescing to Chinese demands for tools to coerce its citizens with expectations of lucrative contracts ought to be a source of concern for both corporate America and U.S. consumers.
Reports from earlier this month indicate that Google is testing a mobile form of its search engine that adheres to Beijing's censorship laws, and that the app has been demonstrated to Chinese authorities. This tailor-made browser for the Chinese market is set to be equipped with surveillance capabilities and would blacklist sensitive search requests while identifying and filtering websites that are blocked by China's Great Firewall.
This search engine would be used in an Android app, a commonly used platform that would provide Google with access to many of China's 750 million internet users, 95% of whom use mobile devices.
All of this after Google's announcement earlier this summer that it would not renew its Project Maven contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop artificial intelligence capabilities for analyzing drone videos following employee opposition to what they called the "business of war."
Google's accommodation of employee hostility to DOD A.I. projects while opting for China-based projects that enhance censors' abilities to control information flies in the face of the company's commitment to use A.I. solely in "socially beneficial" ways that do not endanger human rights.
Although, to date, six U.S. senators have rightly criticized Google's move for its human rights implications, most Americans seem not to have noticed.
Following a string of bad press, hundreds of Google employees signed a letter that calls on the company to provide more openness to allow the company's workers to be aware of the ethical implications of their work. These employees, it was reported, were upset about Google's recent overtures to the Chinese market while respecting Beijing's censorship demands.
There has been no comment by Google leadership on the letter, despite the company's reputation for being responsive to employee concerns.
Yet all indications are that Google is making a concerted go at drumming up business in China. Since the end of 2017, Google CEO Sundar Pichai has been working hard to expand the company's presence in China. According to TechCrunch, Google has invested U.S. $500 million in e-commerce company JD.com and launched apps Google Translate and Snapseed in addition to augmented and virtual reality apps.
Google is also reportedly investing in XtalPi, a U.S.-China biotech startup, and ChuShou, a game-streaming platform. Additionally, last December, Google opened an A.I. research center in Beijing.
Mr. Pichai's ramped up activities in China follow Google's pullout of China in 2010, in which it made an admirable protest against Chinese censorship and hacking by the Chinese government, announcing the withdrawal of its search engine services from China.
That being said, Google has maintained a presence in China since 2010, keeping its ad sales teams in country.
Let's get real. Beijing is praying that Google's pious objections towards working on A.I.-based American defense projects continue. As an adversary of the U.S. that does not share its values and has competing interests, China aims to displace the U.S. as a world superpower and will need to use cutting-edge A.I. battlefield technology to get there.
It is widely known that China is in a race to become the world's leader in A.I. and quantum computing. Dominance in these fields would provide significant advantages in commerce, space, intelligence, and the military sphere as well as in Beijing's never-ending quest for the political control of its citizens.
Google's shameful cold shoulder to Project Maven and its subsequent sprint toward the Chinese market while acquiescing to censorship demands threaten to put the U.S. behind in its decades-long rivalry with China. U.S. consumers and voters must urge other American tech companies to shun the likes of Google's selective social conscience and opt instead for collaboration with the defense community, working toward maintaining a needed edge over Beijing.