Google wants to ramp up its China business and, at the same time, find a “balance” between satisfying the draconian policies of the Chinese Communist Party and the company’s proclaimed dedication to freedom of expression.
“Google has been open about our desire to increase our ability to serve users in China and other countries,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in an Aug. 31 letter to several U.S. senators.
“We are thoughtfully considering a variety of options for how to offer services in China in a way that is consistent with our mission. We are committed to promoting access to information, freedom of expression, and user privacy, as well as to respecting the laws of jurisdictions in which we operate. We seek to strike the right balance in each context.”
The letter was leaked to The Intercept.
Google didn’t respond to The Epoch Times’ request for clarification on what Pichai specifically meant by “the right balance in each context.”
Google has been secretly developing a mobile web search app for China that monitors users and censors topics sensitive to the ruling Communist regime, such as democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest, The Intercept reported on Sept. 14, citing sources it didn’t identify.
Google responded by saying the company wasn’t close to launching a web-search product in China.
But a Google executive, Ben Gomes, said the company planned to release the app between January and April 2019, according to a transcript of Gomes’s internal speech leaked to The Intercept. Gomes told employees working on the project, named Dragonfly, that they had to get it ready to be “brought off the shelf and quickly deployed.”
The Chinese Communist Party runs the world’s most robust system of internet censorship and requires foreign companies to comply with that censorship when operating in China. Companies must also agree to share data on their customers stored in China with the regime.
Google ran a censored version of its search engine in China from 2006 to 2010, but said it backed out because of a cyber attack originating from China that targeted Google email accounts of dozens of Chinese human-rights activists. However, Google had also struggled to make inroads in the Chinese market, which is skewed in favor of domestic companies backed by the regime.
Shift Toward Censorship
While Google was applauded by human-rights advocates for its withdrawal from China, in recent years, the company has been moving away from its principles of supporting free speech, according to a recently leaked internal research document.
The document stated that Google, as well as its subsidiary, YouTube, and other online platforms, have shifted away from free speech “toward censorship and moderation,” in the name of suppressing “hate speech,” “fake news,” and other “bad behavior.”
YouTube doesn’t show “China Uncensored,” the most popular channel focused on Chinese politics, in its search suggestions. It appears, though, that this is not because of Youtube’s targeting of the channel, but because Youtube associates the word “uncensored” with search queries of adult content, which are filtered. Google didn’t provide an explanation when queried by The Epoch Times. China Uncensored is broadcast on NTD, a media partner of The Epoch Times.
In his letter to six senators, Pichai said that Google believes “that knowledge is empowering, and that a society with more information is better off than one with less.” That’s virtually the same reasoning Google used to justify operating a censored search engine in China before 2010.
The senators asked a number of questions about the Dragonfly project, such as what keywords were requested by the regime to be blacklisted for the app and if there were any phrases or words the company would refuse to censor. Pichai didn’t respond to those.
“Whether we would or could release a search service in China remains unclear,” he said. “Accordingly, we are not in a position to be able to answer detailed questions.”
The addressed senators were Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).
Since taking power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party has caused the unnatural deaths of an estimated 80 million Chinese. Since the early 2000s, it’s estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of prisoners of conscience—mostly practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual discipline—to sell their organs for transplants, according to a series of independent investigations conducted since allegations of the crime first surfaced in 2006.
Update: The article has been updated to reflect that the name of the Youtube channel China Uncensored likely inadvertently triggers Youtube filtering of adult content.