Google Admits It Has Chinese Censorship Search Plans – What This Means

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After a painfully long delay, Google admitted at an internal company-wide meeting yesterday that it indeed has a project (reportedly named “Dragonfly”) for Chinese government-controlled censored search in China, but asserts that it is nowhere near ready for deployment and is subject to a range of possible changes before deployment (I’ll add, assuming that it ever actually launches).

Some background:

“Google Must End Its Silence About Censored Search in China” –

“Google Haters Rejoice at Google’s Reported New Courtship of China” –

“Censored Google Search for China Would Be Both Evil and Dangerous!” –

While this was an internal meeting, it apparently leaked publicly in real time, and was reportedly terminated earlier than planned when it was realized that it was being live-tweeted to the public by somebody watching the event.

The substance of the discussion is unlikely to appease Googlers upset by these plans. For all practical purposes, management appears to be justifying the new project using much the same terms (e.g., some Google is better than no Google”) used to try justify the ill-fated 2006 entry of Google into censored Chinese search, which Google abandoned in 2010 after continuing escalation of demands by the Chinese government, and Chinese government hacking of Google systems.

Given the rapid recent escalation of Internet censorship and associated human rights abuses by China’s “President for Life” Xi, there’s little reason to expect the results to be any different this time around — in fact they’re likely to go bad even more quickly, making Google by definition complicit in the human rights abuses that flow from the Chinese government’s censorship regime.

The secrecy surrounding this project — few Googlers even knew of its existence until leaks began circulating publicly — was explained by Google execs as “typical” of various Google projects while in their early, very sensitive stages.

This alone suggests a serious blind spot in Google management’s analysis. Such logic might hold true for a “run-of-the-mill” new service. But keeping a project such as Chinese censored search under such wraps within the company — a project with vast ethical ramifications — is positively poisonous to internal company trust and moral when the project eventually leaks out — as we’ve seen so dramatically demonstrated in this case.

That’s why the (now public) Googler petition — reportedly signed by well over a 1000 Googlers and increasing — is so relevant and important. It wisely calls for the establishment of formal frameworks inside Google to deal with these kinds of ethical issues, giving rank and file employees a “seat at the table” for such discussions. 

It also notably calls for the creation of internal “ombudspersons” roles to be directly engaged in these corporate ethical considerations — something that I’ve been publicly and privately advocating to Google over at least the last 10 years.

Irrespective of whether or not Google relaunches Chinese-government controlled censored search, the kinds of efforts proposed in the Googler petition would be excellent steps toward the important goal of improving Google’s ethical framework for dealing with both controversial and more routine projects going forward.

Leaks threaten the culture of internal openness that has been an important hallmark at Google since its creation 20 years ago (with this new Chinese government-censored search project being an obvious and ironic exception to Google’s open internal culture).

This internal openness is crucial not only for Google, but also for its users and the community at large as well. Vibrant open discussion internally at Google (which I’ve witnessed and participated in myself when I consulted to them a number of years ago) is what helps to make Google’s products and services better, and helps Google to avoid potentially serious mistakes.

But for any organization, when policy-related leaks occur of the sort that we’ve witnessed recently regarding Google and China, it strongly suggests that the organization does not have well functioning or adequate internal staff-accessible processes in place to appropriately deal with these higher pressure matters. Again, the kinds of proposals in the Googler petition would go a long way toward alleviating this situation.

These recent developments have brought Google to a kind of crossroads, a “moment of truth” as it were. What is Google going to be in its next 20 years? What kinds of roles will ethics play in Google’s decisions going forward? These are complex questions without simple answers. Google has a lot of serious work ahead in answering them to their own and the public’s personal and political satisfactions. 

But Google is great at dealing with hard problems, and I believe that they’ll work their way to appropriate answers in these cases as well.

We shall see what transpires in the fullness of time.