n May, Google quietly removed “Don’t be evil” from the text of its corporate code of conduct, deleting a catchphrase that had been associated with the company since 2000. Amid startling revelations of how social media and internet platforms can enable political interference and new forms of stealthy cyberwarfare, avoiding evil in Silicon Valley has turned out to be harder than it looks. In a world where Twitter’s terrorist may be Facebook’s freedom fighter, decisions over what content to algorithmically uplift or suppress can involve agonizing questions of interpretation, intent, and cultural context.
But amid all the moral ambiguity and uncharted terrain of running an internet platform that controls vast swaths of global discourse and reaps commensurate revenues, some dilemmas are more straightforward than others. That’s why word of Google’s plans to substantially expand its currently minimal role in the Chinese market—through the potential launch of a censored search engine code-named Dragonfly—has provoked such uproar.
The plans were revealed through documents leaked to the Intercept, which reported that prototypes and negotiations with the Chinese government were far along, laying the groundwork for the potential service to launch as soon as early 2019. In late August, a group of free expression and human rights organizations published a joint letter proclaiming that the launch of a Chinese search application would represent “an alarming capitulation by Google on human rights.” Six U.S. senators, led by Marco Rubio and Mark Warner, sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai demanding answers to a series of queries about the company’s intentions. Last week, PEN America sent a detailed letter to Google executives spelling out specific human rights issues and subjects that, per Chinese censorship rules, would be treated repressively and deceptively by any information platform operating in the country. Google’s own employees are also up in arms: More than 1,400 signed a letter to management saying the floated China project “raise[s] urgent moral and ethical issues” and demanding greater transparency before any plans are implemented.
In demonstrating that a company as mighty as Google was unable to resist the allure of the Chinese market, despite the terms of entry, Beijing will advance its campaign to remake global internet governance on its own terms. The utopian notion of an internet that unifies people across borders, fosters the unfettered flow of information, and allows truth and reason to triumph is already under attack on multiple fronts. The trade-off, to date, has been that countries insistent on controlling the internet have had to forfeit access to the world’s most powerful and innovative online services in favor of local providers.
If Google is willing to play along with China, governments in Russia, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and elsewhere will have little reason not to fortify their own measures to control content and opinion. At a time when even the U.S. president is attacking Google and other platforms as biased and rigged, for the company to signal a new willingness to bow before an overreaching government would represent a grave setback for the rights of citizens to harness digital technology as a tool of empowerment.
Google is no stranger to the Chinese market or to the moral dilemmas it poses. Google first began offering a Chinese-language version of its search engine back in 2000. Periodic blocking and slowdowns caused by filtering through China’s Great Firewall made the service clunky and unreliable on the mainland. In 2006, Google launched a Google.cn service based in China, agreeing to block certain websites in return for being licensed to operate in the country. The company promised to tell mainland users when results were being withheld and to avoid offering services that would require housing confidential user data on Chinese servers. At the same time, native Chinese internet services such as Baidu and Tencent began to gain steam. Chinese authorities were brazen in utilizing Western online services to surveil and track down dissenters. In a notorious 2007 incident, it was revealed that Yahoo had turned over private information about two journalists at the request of Chinese authorities, resulting in 10-year prison sentences for the men and a global uproar at the spectacle of a U.S. company betraying its users to an authoritarian regime. The company settled a lawsuit with the families of the two men, established a $17 million fund to support Chinese dissidents, and faced a congressional investigation in which Rep. Tom Lantos infamously chided, “While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies.”
It’s not just Yahoo. In 2008, the Chinese human rights scholar and activist Guo Quan threatened to sue Yahoo and Google for omitting his name from search results inside China. He wrote in an open letter: “To make money, Google has become a servile Pekinese dog wagging its tail at the heels of the Chinese Communists.” He has been serving a 10-year prison sentence since 2009. That same year, the Chinese government punished Google, purportedly for failing to adequately screen out pornography, by limiting its reach and advantaging its leading local search competitor, Baidu.
In January 2010, Google issued a detailed statement declaring that it would stop censoring Chinese search results and was prepared to pull out of the market. It announced that the service had been targeted by attacks aimed at hacking the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights defenders and their supporters around the world. The corporate release reflected on Google’s aspirations and trajectory in China, saying it had entered the country “in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results.” The statement went on to say that four years later, in the face of continued attacks and surveillance, “combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web … we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn. … We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.” After failed attempts to negotiate a way to remain in China by redirecting local traffic to Google’s Hong Kong site, the company effectively pulled out of the market later that year, maintaining only a token presence and small staff.
It is not hard to understand why Google’s corporate bosses have grown wistful about the Chinese market. According to a September 2017 report by the Boston Consulting Group, with more than 700 million users (nearly as many as the next two biggest markets—India and the United States—combined) and close to $100 billion in revenue, China has become the world’s largest internet market by several measures, behind only the United States in terms of online spending. The future upside seems nearly boundless. With its vast and upwardly mobile rural population, growth rates in Chinese internet use far outpace any other market, with internet penetration rates still lagging well behind those of other G-20 countries. Right behind the U.S. tech giants Google, Amazon, and Facebook, five of the world’s 10 largest internet companies are Chinese, including Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu. China is also home to 29 to 40 percent of the world’s “unicorns,” defined as privately held start-ups valued at more than $1 billion. For a leading global player to be shut out of an increasingly critical and dynamic market could pose long-term risks for Google’s business.