Sen. Cruz Grills Google Over China Censorship Plans, Political Bias

By Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
September 27, 2018 Updated: December 11, 2018

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) closely questioned a Google representative regarding the company’s Dragonfly project to allegedly develop a censored internet search engine for China. Cruz also asked about Google’s alleged bias against conservatives.

Chief Privacy Officer Keith Enright confirmed Dragonfly’s existence, but denied knowledge of what the project entailed during his testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Sept. 26.

He said a “search product” for China isn’t close to release.

Enright also initially categorically denied political bias in Google products, but upon Cruz’s probing further, acknowledged he wasn’t aware of any efforts by Google to check for bias.

Red Dragonfly

Project Dragonfly was first publicized by The Intercept on Sept. 14, based on unnamed sources. A week later, The Intercept learned from its sources that Google required its employees to delete a memo detailing the project. The memo was authored by an engineer who was asked to work on Dragonfly.

The project developed an app, for phones using iOS and Android operating systems, that required users to log in with their phone numbers. It also tracked user search histories and locations and censored terms such as “democracy,” “human rights,” and “peaceful protest,” according to the sources.

The Chinese communist regime runs the world’s most sophisticated system of internet censorship and requires foreign companies to censor topics it deems “sensitive,” such as democracy, human rights, and the ongoing persecution in China of Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners, human rights activists, and others. Companies are also forced to share with the regime any data stored in China.

Some 1,400 Google employees sent a letter to the company leadership, saying Dragonfly broke the company’s ethics rules for artificial intelligence development. They also demanded transparency and oversight, saying the secretive development of Dragonfly denied them information “to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment.” The text of the letter was published by Gizmodo.

Some employees have quit because of Dragonfly, according to former senior Google researcher Jack Poulson, who was one of them. In a Sept. 24 letter, Poulson urged senators to question Enright on concerns regarding Dragonfly during the hearing.

Former Google researcher Jack Poulson
Former Google researcher Jack Poulson. (Courtesy of Jack Poulson)

Cruz Digs

Taking his turn at the end of the Senate hearing, Cruz asked Enright whether reports about Dragonfly were accurate.

“My understanding is that we are not close to launching a search product in China. And whether we eventually could or would remains unclear,” Enright said in an answer similar to those given to Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) earlier in the hearing.

Cruz kept digging, however, and asked whether project Dragonfly exists and what it is.

Enright said Google has “an array of internal projects” and that it wouldn’t be “necessarily appropriate” in a conversation about privacy “to speculate as to what we might be looking at in terms of a product launch in some part of the world.”

“You’re not answering my question then on Project Dragonfly?” Cruz asked.

“There is a project Dragonfly,” Enright said.

Cruz continued: “And it’s focused on a search engine in China. Is that accurate?”

“We are not close to launching a search product,” Enright said, apparently attempting to repeat his previous answer, but Cruz stopped him and rephrased his question. “I didn’t ask timing of launch. I asked what it is.”

“I am not clear on the contours of what is in scope or out of scope for that project,” Enright said. “But I can say that if we were close to launching a search product in China, myself and my team would be very actively engaged to ensure that it was going through the appropriate privacy review process and that it was consistent with our privacy values and the commitments that we’ve made to our users.”

The trouble is, the internal privacy review process of Dragonfly was “a catastrophic failure … which one of the reviewers characterized as actively subverted,” according to Poulson’s letter.

Ben Gomes, Google’s head of search, told the BBC this week that Google has only done some “exploratory work in China.”

“Right now all we’ve done is some exploration,” he said. “But since we don’t have any plans to launch something there’s nothing much I can say about it.”

Political Bias

“Do Google search results, as a systemic manner, tend to favor one political party over another?” Cruz asked Enright.

“No sir,” he replied. “We build products for everyone. And in my experience, I see no evidence of bias in the way that our products or services operate.”

Enright acknowledged, however, that his view didn’t go beyond personal experience. “I have not reviewed data,” he said.

Cruz further asked, “Are you aware of efforts to actually empirically assess and determine it?”

“As chief privacy officer of Google, I am not aware of such efforts,” Enright said.

Google didn’t respond to a request for further information on the issue.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai at the Google I/O 2017 Conference at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View
Google CEO Sundar Pichai at the Google I/O 2017 Conference at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, Calif., on May 17, 2017. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The White House has reportedly drafted an executive order that has tasked federal agencies with examining online platforms for bias and antitrust issues.

During the 2016 presidential election, Google search results showed a significant bias toward then-candidate Hillary Clinton, according to Robert Epstein, a Harvard-trained psychologist and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.

The search results could have influenced millions of voters in Clinton’s favor, Epstein estimated, though he stopped short of accusing the company of producing the bias deliberately, which Google denied.

Silicon Valley is known for having a mostly left-leaning workforce and management.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin said to a large audience of employees he was “deeply offended” by the election of President Trump and that “most people here are pretty upset” as shown in a video of a post-election Google meeting leaked to Breitbart.

Trump criticized Google for bias against conservatives in Aug. 28 tweets, three days after PJ Media reported that among the top 100 search results for “Trump” on Google News, 96 percent of them were from left-leaning media.

The Epoch Times has repeated the experiment on two dates and obtained similar results. No results from popular right-leaning media like The Daily Caller, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Breitbart, The Blaze, The Daily Wire, or Townhall appeared in the first 10 pages of Google News search results. The only three right-leaning sources that regularly showed up were Fox News, Fox Business, and The Wall Street Journal.

Correction: A previous version of the article incorrectly attributed a quote to Sen. Ted Cruz, while the statement was actually made by Google Chief Privacy Officer Keith Enright. The Epoch Times regrets the error.

Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.