Google, a company with an annual revenue exceeding $100 billion and tens of thousands of employees, has brought about ground-breaking innovations through its horizontal search engine, self-driving vehicles, and electronic messaging systems, improving the lives of millions of individuals and businesses in the process.
However, recent reports of the Silicon Valley behemoth’s cooperation with China paint a picture less of an ethical business giant, and more of an adversary blatantly subverting American interests and basic human rights on the world stage.
In early August, The Intercept reported that Google is planning to implement a censored version of its search engine in China, dubbed “Project Dragonfly,” which will block searches related to free speech, human rights, and democracy, among other content Beijing deems objectionable.
Worse, the search engine will reportedly link any searches entered by a user directly to his or her phone number, allowing Chinese authorities to easily track citizens seeking out blacklisted information, and placing political dissidents at risk of human rights violations such as interrogation or detention.
Furthermore, the search engine would reportedly replace data on weather and air pollution with information manipulated directly by Beijing, falsifying the risk associated with breathing in the heavy smog blanketing the nation’s cities.
By yielding to Beijing’s assault on freedom in return for access to new markets, Google has succumbed to the darker impulses of human nature, in a stark reversal of previous anti-censorship stances. In 2010, for instance, Google refused to censor search results in China, writing in a blog post, “We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services.”
Through its proposed “propaganda engine,” however, Google is now complicit in a regime that persecutes religious minorities and massacres peaceful protestors—and the backlash is growing. A coalition of 14 human rights groups recently called upon the company to halt the project in its tracks, writing, “Google risks becoming complicit in the Chinese government’s repression of freedom of speech and other human rights.”
Moreover, seven brave employees have resigned from Google in protest of the project.
“I view our intent to capitulate to censorship and surveillance demands in exchange for access to the Chinese market as a forfeiture of our values and governmental negotiating position across the globe,” Google senior research scientist Jack Poulson told his superiors in his resignation letter, adding, “I’d rather stand with the human rights organizations in this dispute,” in an interview with BuzzFeed.
A bipartisan group of 16 lawmakers asked Google on September 13 if it would comply with Beijing’s censorship laws, and a further 1,000 Google employees and six senators have written the company expressing serious concerns.
Simply put, Google’s proposed propaganda engine is a stunning rejection of American ideals, and it would give Beijing another powerful tool in its arsenal to silence dissent and further enslave the Chinese public. Unfortunately, Google appears completely unfazed by the backlash, and has declined to comment directly on the matter.
Coupled with claims of conservative censorship and Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s refusal to testify before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, Google’s congressional support seems to be waning quickly. While Google’s refusal to address its controversies publicly may aid the company in the short term, it is sure to invite regulation from Congress in the future.
Ironically, Google may have foreshadowed its decision to compromise its values months before reports on Project Dragonfly first surfaced. On July 31, the company removed its longtime motto, “Don’t be evil,” from the beginning of its code of conduct. However, the document’s last line remains, “And remember… don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right – speak up!”
Google, the world sees something evil, and if you listen hard enough, you’ll hear free people everywhere speaking up.
As for Beijing’s ultimate goal, valuable insight may be taken from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984.” Embedded within the book’s many themes of authoritarianism is the concept of “Newspeak,” a form of language that not only seeks to steer the subjects of a nearly omnipotent regime towards one worldview, but to make it impossible to express dissent entirely.
Of course, the novel’s insight is undoubtably recognized by the Chinese government itself. In the wake of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s successful bid to remove a constitutional clause limiting presidents to two terms in office, Chinese users of Weibo, a social media website, took to the platform in protest, only to find that 1984, among other terms, had been blocked by government censors.
Nevertheless, Beijing’s goal, and that of tyrants everywhere, will prove fruitless in the end. Even if the people of China are confined to a vocabulary stripped of truth, the eternal concepts of freedom of thought and expression, the right to public assembly, property ownership, and liberty will burn in the hearts of the oppressed, and no people stays enslaved forever.