Google: Whom Does One Believe?

May 24, 2019

Apparently, what is good for China is situational for Google. The Intercept declares, “Google’s Censored Search Would Help China ‘Be More Open,’ Said Ex-CEO Eric Schmidt.” Writer Ryan Gallagher points to a recent BBC News interview with Eric Schmidt in which the former Google CEO, and current board member, seemed to defend his company’s choice to build a censored search platform just for China. To be fair, Schmidt’s opinion is a bit more nuanced than the above headline suggests: the theory seems to be that, by cozying up to China, Google might influence that country to embrace internet freedom. Seems reasonable? Gallagher writes:

“During Schmidt’s tenure as CEO, in 2006, Google launched a search engine in China but pulled out of the country in 2010, due to concerns about Chinese government interference. At that time, [co-founder Sergey] Brin said the decision to stop operating search in the country was mainly about ‘opposing censorship and speaking out for the freedom of political dissent.’ Schmidt revealed in his BBC interview that he had argued against Brin — believing that the company should remain in China, despite the censorship requirements. He said he felt that it was better ‘to stay in China and help change China to be more open.’

We also noted this passage:

“Brin has previously said that he felt the same way for a period of time — that Google could help China embrace greater internet freedom. But he watched as the company, over a number of years, faced increasing censorship requests from the Chinese government. ‘Things started going downhill, especially after the Olympics [in Beijing in 2008],’ Brin said in a 2010 interview. ‘And there’s been a lot more blocking going on since then. … [S]o the situation really took a turn for the worse.’”

At least Google’s workers understand that cooperating with China’s censorship efforts will do nothing to dampen China’s enthusiasm for censorship. Once word of the search platform tailor-made for China, code named Dragonfly, got out, workers protested. Many of them were unhappy to learn they had unwittingly supported censorship through their work, and called for more transparency and employee input. In that BBC interview, Schmidt says Google is “no longer pursuing Dragonfly,” but could not rule out a return to the project in the future.

Meanwhile, censorship has only gotten worse in China since Brin’s 2010 concerns; according to the Human Rights Watch, a 2016 cybersecurity law has brought internet control to “new heights.”

Now Google has complied with the US government’s directive about Huawei. Compliance and an apparent leadership position. Google’s diplomacy may be tested, and the firm’s leadership will have opportunities to craft other statements.

But whom does one believe when it comes to reading tea leaves about Google and its intentions?

Cynthia Murrell, May 24, 2019

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