Google CEO has serious questions to answer on China censored search

By William Nee, Business & Human Rights Advisor

Google CEO Sundar Pichai will appear before Congress later today to defend his company against allegations of political bias. Google is accused of rigging search engine results against US conservatives, so Pichai can expect the grilling to focus on Google’s domestic operations. But given some of Google’s current activities further afield, lawmakers in Washington would be wise to broaden the scope of their inquiry.  

In August, The Intercept published leaked internal documents detailing Google’s plans to launch a version of its search engine in China. Codenamed Project Dragonfly, the search engine will comply with China’s internet censorship rules – some of the most repressive in the world– by automatically identifying and filtering websites blocked in China and “blacklisting sensitive queries”.

The blacklist – reportedly developed by Google itself – includes the terms “human rights”, “student protest” and “Nobel Prize”, as well as phrases implying criticism of China’s President Xi Jinping.

There is a real danger that Google could be complicit in helping the Chinese government arrest or imprison people simply for peacefully expressing their views online.

The search engine would also link users’ searches to their personal phone numbers, making it easier for authorities to identify specific individuals. There is therefore a real danger that Google could be complicit in helping the Chinese government arrest or imprison people simply for peacefully expressing their views online.

Volte face

The House Judiciary Committee may want to ask why Google has reversed its 2010 decision to pull out of China. Back then, the company announced it had “decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn”, citing cyber-attacks against the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists and attempts by the Chinese government to “further limit free speech on the web”.

Google’s apparent change of heart can’t be explained by a softening in the Chinese government’s approach to internet censorship and surveillance in the intervening eight years, as there hasn’t been one. If Google’s position has indeed changed, this must be stated publicly. Mr. Pichai must also provide a clear explanation of how the company considers it can square Project Dragonfly with the company’s responsibility under international standards to respect human rights wherever it operates in the world.

Congress might also ask Mr. Pichai when he last read Google’s own Code of Conduct, which promises to advance users’ rights to privacy and freedom of expression globally. In June Google published a set of “AI Principles", in which it pledged not to build “technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights”. Google also commits, through the industry’s Global Network Initiative, to conduct human rights due diligence when entering markets or developing new services.

To launch censored search in China would make such commitments ring hollow. It’s therefore not surprising that many Google employees have been up in arms about Project Dragonfly. Last month, hundreds of staff signed an open letter against the project, coinciding with protests by Amnesty outside Google offices around the world.

Meanwhile Pichai and his fellow executives have remained tight-lipped. In his only public remarks on the subject so far, Pichai said the Chinese online market is “important for us to explore”, adding that the censored search would serve “well over 99% of queries”.

But the 1% of queries Pichai seems happy to censor is critical. To see what’s at stake, look at what’s happening in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in the northwest of China. Here the Chinese government is carrying out a campaign of mass internment of up to one million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups.

The Chinese authorities claim that they are doing this to combat “extremism”, but people are sent to detention for things as minor as having a relative overseas or having once used a foreign website. Beatings, torture, overcrowding, and political indoctrination are commonplace, former detainees say. There are no lawyers for detainees and no documentation is provided.

Dragonfly search will almost certainly reinforce and exacerbate the persecution and discrimination against ethnic minorities and Muslims in China

International media and human rights groups have produced a stream of detailed reports on conditions in the region over the past few months, but Amnesty International was unable to find a single one of them via domestic Chinese search engines. Google’s Dragonfly would have no choice but to replicate this state-sanctioned silence on the horrifying treatment of ethnic minorities.

Censorship

If Google complies with Chinese censorship, it will be limited to carrying a steady stream of state-run media articles expounding the State’s “wise and benevolent leadership”. It will be complicit in spreading the government’s narrative that it is fighting “terrorism” and promoting “ethnic solidarity”.

In other words, Google will abet the Chinese government in silencing victims of this campaign. Dragonfly search will almost certainly reinforce and exacerbate the persecution and discrimination against ethnic minorities and Muslims in China. How could this be compatible with Google's pledge to “avoid creating or reinforcing unfair bias”?

If Google decides to go ahead with Dragonfly, it will signal a massive capitulation on human rights and the company’s own AI principles. The pursuit of profit in China will irreparably damage internet users’ trust in Google and enable human rights abuses.

Mr. Pichai has some serious questions to answer.