Google’s China Dilemma Is Ours as Well

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It now seems unlikely that Google will be proceeding anytime soon with their highly controversial “Dragonfly” project to provide Chinese government-controlled censored search services in China. The project has become politically radioactive — odds are that any attempt to move forward would result in overwhelming bipartisan blocking actions by Congress.

But this doesn’t mean that Google can — or that they should — leave China. About 20% of the global population is within Chinese territorial boundaries, well over a billion human beings. Even if it were financially practical to do so (which it isn’t), we cannot ethically abandon them.

Our ethical concerns with China are not with the Chinese people, they’re with the oppressive, dictatorial Chinese government.

In fact, if you ever deal directly with Chinese individuals, you’ll generally find them to be among the greatest folks you’ve ever encountered. Even if your experience is only with the multitude of Chinese-operated stores on eBay, it’s routine to receive superb customer service that puts many U.S.-based firms to shame.

So the dilemma — not just for Google but for all of us in dealing with China — is how to best serve the people of China, without directly supporting China’s totalitarian regime and their escalating and serious mass human rights abuses.

Obviously, it’s impossible to completely compartmentalize these two aspects of the problem, but there are some fairly obvious guidelines that we can apply.

Joint research projects with China — for example, in areas such as machine learning and artificial intelligence — is one category that will generally make sense to pursue, even though we realize that the fruits of such work can be used in negative ways.

But realistically, this is true of most research by humankind throughout history, and joint research projects can at the very least provide valuable insight into important work that might not otherwise be surfaced to domestic researchers.

On the other hand, participation in operational Chinese systems that wage war and/or directly further the oppression of the Chinese people should be absolutely off the table. This is the dangerous category into which Dragonfly would ultimately have resided, because the Chinese government’s vast censorship apparatus is a foundational and crucial aspect of their maintaining oppressive control over their population.

The fact that the vast majority of common queries under Dragonfly might not have been censored is irrelevant to the concerns at hand. It’s those crucial other Dragonfly queries —- censored by order of the Chinese dictators — that would drag this concept deep into an unacceptable ethical minefield.

These are but two examples from a complex array of situations relating to China. Neither Google nor the rest of us can or should disengage from China. But the specific ways in which we choose to work with China are paramount, and it is incumbent on us to assure that such projects always pass reasonable ethical muster.

As usual with so much in life, as the old saying goes (and the Chinese probably said it first) — the devil is in the details.

–Lauren–