Google's selective social conscience

It bears asking why Google would push to develop a tool that threatens human liberty and dignity in China while refusing to renew a US gov't contract that would preserve our military edge over that country?

Dr. Ted Gover, | updated: 06:40

Dr.Ted Gover
Dr.Ted Gover
צילום: PR

Google’s recent accommodation of Beijing’s censors in exchange for business opportunities in China demonstrates a glaring unwillingness to uphold its much-touted company values, the same set of values that it employed to end its AI work with the Pentagon earlier this summer. 

The transactional decision by Google to set aside its former “Don’t be evil” and current “Do the right thing” corporate mantras for the promise of the Chinese market demonstrates a disturbing inconsistency in the company’s principles. Acquiescing to Chinese demands for tools to coerce its citizens with expectations of lucrative contracts ought to be a source of concern for both corporate America and U.S. consumers.    

As to the details, reports from earlier this month indicate that Google is testing a mobile form of its search engine that adheres to Beijing’s censorship laws, and that the app has been demonstrated to Chinese authorities. This tailor-made browser for the Chinese market is set to be equipped with surveillance capabilities and would blacklist sensitive search requests while identifying and filtering websites that are blocked by
The tailor-made browser for the Chinese market is set to be equipped with surveillance capabilities and would blacklist sensitive search requests while identifying and filtering websites that are blocked by China’s Great Firewall.
China’s Great Firewall. 

This search engine would be used in an Android app, a commonly used platform that would provide Google with access to many of China’s 750 million internet users, 95% of whom use mobile devices.  

All of this after Google’s announcement earlier this summer that it would not renew its Project Maven contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop artificial intelligence capabilities for analyzing drone videos following employee opposition to what they called the “business of war”. 

Although to date six U.S. Senators have rightly criticized Google’s move for its human rights implications, most Americans seem not to have noticed. 

Since the end of 2017, Google CEO Sundar Pichai has been working hard to expand the company’s presence in China. According to TechCrunch, Google has invested US$500 million in e-commerce company JD.com, launched apps Google Translate and Snapseed in addition to augmented and virtual reality apps. 

Google is also reportedly investing in XtalPi, a U.S-China biotech startup, and ChuShou, a game-streaming platform. Additionally, last December Google opened an AI research center in Beijing. 

Mr. Pichai’s ramped up activities in China follow Google’s pullout of China in 2010 in which it made an admirable protest against Chinese censorship and hacking by the Chinese government, announcing the withdrawal of its search engine services from China. 

That being said, Google has maintained a presence in China since 2010, keeping their ad sales teams in country. 

It bears asking why Google would push to develop a tool that threatens human liberty and dignity overseas while it wouldn’t dare attempt to do so on American soil? Are the rights of ordinary Chinese nationals disposable while those of U.S. citizens are not? 

The answer, sadly, is that Chinese authorities are not bound by the same laws that restrict their American counterparts. Oh, and yes, the allure of the Chinese market is enough to incentivize Mr. Pichai to toss aside human rights concerns. 

One would be forgiven for wondering - - with irritation - - why Google stumbled upon its inconsistent notion of right and wrong when working on a U.S. military contract while putting aside these concerns as opportunities arose in mainland China. Let us hope that Google’s sanctimonious ways vis-a-vis the Department of Defense’s Project Maven is an aberration and not a sign of things to come, although perhaps the author is a bit gullible and unsuspecting here.

Let’s get real. Beijing is praying that Google’s pious objections towards working on AI-based American defense projects continue. As an adversary of the U.S. that does not share its values and has competing interests, China aims to displace the U.S. as a world superpower and will need to use cutting-edge AI battlefield technology to get there.   

It is widely known that China is in a race to become the world’s leader in AI and quantum computing. Dominance in these fields would provide significant advantages in commerce, space, intelligence, the military sphere as well as Beijing’s never-ending quest for the political control of its citizens. 

Google’s shameful cold shoulder to Project Maven and its subsequent sprint towards the Chinese market while acquiescing to censorship demands threatens to put the U.S. behind in its decades-long rivalry with China.

U.S. consumers and voters must urge other American tech companies to shun the likes of Google’s selective social conscience and opt instead for collaboration with the defense community, ensuring an American edge over Beijing. 








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