GOOGLE ANNOUNCED last week that it would not compete for a $10 billion cloud-computing contract with the Pentagon, claiming the work would conflict with its corporate values. Yet somehow that ethical high-mindedness does not seem to come into play as the company plans to launch a censored search engine in China.
Google’s development of a platform that complies with the Chinese regime’s restrictions on information access, dubbed Project Dragonfly, was first reported by the Intercept in August. Since then, details have become available bit by bit, no thanks to the company itself. Last week, the Intercept obtained a letter from Google chief executive Sundar Pichai to a bipartisan group of six senators in which he refused to answer specific questions about the engine but touted its “broad benefits.” Google also says there are no concrete plans to launch what is still only an exploratory project — but the Intercept reports the company’s search engine chief said in a private meeting that he hoped for a rollout early next year.
This lack of transparency further weakens Google’s claim to the moral high ground. It took Google almost two months after the Intercept’s initial report even to acknowledge there was a Project Dragonfly, and Pichai finally confirmed the initiative Monday night. Now executives seem to think they owe no concrete answers to anyone as long as the search engine remains a prototype. But once that prototype has turned into a reality, it may be too late for criticism. Just as it was difficult for Google employees to know what they were working on when Dragonfly was still secret, now it is difficult for the public and Congress to have a say without all of the facts.
They should try to have their say anyway. Dragonfly defenders argue that Google’s involvement in China could actually open up the country. In reality, however, there is little room for technology companies to negotiate with the Chinese government over terms. Either they cave in to China’s blacklisting strictures in full, or they stay out. By reentering China with search, Google would be unlikely to provide consumers with services substantially better than those they already receive from Baidu and a censored version of Bing. The company would only expose itself to requests for information on users from the Chinese government, setting the precedent for capitulation to authoritarian demands from other countries.
The real difference between the defense contracts Google has decided run counter to its principles and the plan to bring a search engine back to China, apart from the likelihood of a financial windfall, seems to be the degree of organized discontent inside and outside the company. Google says it has not yet decided whether search in China is viable. All the more reason for people in the United States, from employees to members of Congress to everyday citizens, to speak up for what they believe. After all, Google’s potential customers in China do not enjoy that opportunity.