All of America’s tech giants have a fraught relationship with China, but perhaps none more so than Google. While the company performatively plays to the American norms of standing for freedom of speech and human dignity, when pressed they are more than happy to bend the knee to Chinese censors.
On Friday, they were at it again. Google’s YouTube announced it was de-monetizing — that is, removing ads — from a segment of the popular YouTube show Breaking Points. The show’s two hosts, Saagar Enjeti and Krystal Ball, had run a segment discussing the disappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, after she accused a senior Chinese Communist Party official of rape.
“After manually reviewing your video,” YouTube wrote to Breaking Points, “we’ve confirmed that it isn’t suitable for all advertisers. As a result, it will continue to run limited or no ads.”
Sorry @YouTube. We meant to say Peng Shaui is safe and sound and just can't wait for the Olympics in China which ofc is the best country in the world!
— Saagar Enjeti (@esaagar) November 19, 2021
The segment will still play. But the show, which supports itself on a combination of premium subscribers and advertising, won’t make any advertising money. In other words, YouTube has decided that the show should be financially punished for criticizing China.
This isn’t the first time YouTube has engaged in overt censorship on behalf of the communist regime. Last year, YouTube was busted automatically deleting comments containing certain Chinese-language phrases critical of the CCP. The practice had been going on for roughly a year when YouTube acknowledged it was “an error in our enforcement systems.” Okay.
But, notably with the Breaking Points video, YouTube confirmed its demonetization after a manual review. That is, there was no automated enforcement, no quirk of the algorithm, to blame. The individuals on Google’s content moderation team reviewed the video and objectively determined it would be demonetized. As a policy matter, Google made an institutional choice to penalize user content critical of China’s human rights abuses.
When asked about the demonetization by the Free Beacon, Enjeti speculated that the word “rape” in the title may have flagged the video. But he went on:
‘It’s possible that this could be the result of influence from the CCP,’ Enjeti told the Free Beacon. ‘Or, at the very least, YouTube has to understand advertisers like Nike and other massive multinationals may be worried’ about running ads alongside stories critical of the regime. Enjeti said the incident highlights how much power tech companies have to determine what news is appropriate.
Google Is Hedging Its Bets With China
This isn’t the first time Google has chosen China over user content and free speech values, and it won’t be the last. What Google wants, most of all, is access to the Chinese market, and it’s generally willing to make the sacrifices necessary to accommodate a murderous regime along the way.
The company, which does not operate in China currently, previously maintained a censored version of its search engine in China between 2006 to 2010. The late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) accused Google and three other American tech companies of “nauseating collaboration with a regime of repression” while noting that “this value-free excuse truly sickens me.” Facing such congressional scrutiny, Google pulled the plug on the project.
But Google’s interest in accessing the Chinese market didn’t stop. In 2018, The Intercept reported on an effort by the company to create a version of its search engine that complied with Chinese censorship. Project Dragonfly, as it was known, blacklisted “websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest.” The company canceled the project only after an outcry from their own employees.
Earlier this year, the streaming giant banned a human rights group with millions of views for sharing testimonials from people who say their families have disappeared in China’s Xinjiang region. There is documented evidence of China engaging in overt human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including genocide against its minority Uyghur Muslim population — a genocide that the United States officially recognized in January.
Yet for YouTube, discussion of these Chinese government atrocities constitutes “cyberbullying and harassment.” YouTube restored the channel after inquiries from Reuters and Human Rights Watch, but as of June, had removed about 975 of the channel’s videos.
Google’s Bootlicking Comes At A Cost
Google is not alone among Big Tech actors willing to compromise American values for access to the Chinese marketplace. Apple, which assembles nearly all of its products in China, has shared consumer data with the Chinese government and removed apps from its App Store at their request. The company is also alleged to use Chinese slaves in its supply chains.
But Google is unique in that its proponents assert its status as a “national champion” against Chinese cyber aggression. Breaking up Google, or otherwise managing its anticompetitive behavior with public policy, would “set us back against China,” to quote Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt.
But this is a company that is clearly hedging its bets with China — not the United States. Google has, famously, refused to work with the Department of Defense on artificial intelligence projects. Meanwhile, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford told a Senate committee in 2019 that “the work Google is doing in China is indirectly benefiting the Chinese military.”
“Frankly,” he went on, “‘indirect may not be a full characterization of the way it really is, it is more of a direct benefit to the Chinese military.”
So it should come as no surprise that Google is again choosing China over America’s speech values — and genuine human rights concern for the fate of Peng Shuai. When a company shows you what they’re about, believe them.
And Google has shown us again and again that their priority isn’t free expression, or even free people. No, their priority is bootlicking for whatever regime can make them billions — even if it happens to be America’s biggest geostrategic and economic adversary and one of the world’s most authoritarian countries.