In August, Google executives chose to yield to internal and external pressure and cut ties with the United States Defense Department on an initiative that aimed at bringing a Google image search-like capability to the intelligence feeds human analysts currently sift through in hopes of locating high-value targets or identifying behavioral trends. The project, which was called “Maven,” would have greatly increased the speed in which American analysts could work through various intelligence feeds, providing more up to date information to the warfighter in the field regarding the location of enemy combatants, their strength, and any threat they may pose to American interests.
Google employees, or “Googlers,” characterized the endeavor as some sort of autonomous targeting system, with a number of employees resigning over the program and far more signing a petition that called for Google to stand down its DoD-funded AI enterprise. Even at the time, however, it seemed clear that Google employees weren’t concerned about someone working with the Defense Department on this technology — they just didn’t want to get their own hands “dirty” in the endeavor.
“It’s not like Google is this little machine-learning startup that’s trying to find clients in different industries,” a resigning employee said at the time. “It just seems like it makes sense for Google and Google’s reputation to stay out of that.”
Because what was called an “ethical stand” by Google employees, Maven will likely continue without the expertise allotted by the tech giant, but in the minds of many, that’s appropriate. However, Google recently acknowledged that it has since continued moving forward with another program that has been controversial both within and outside of the “Googler” circles: an internet censoring search engine for China.
When asked why Google is continuing to work for an oppressive Chinese regime despite the concerns of the staff, Google CEO Sundar Pichai seemed dismissive of the idea that his employee’s views could inform high-level business decisions.
“Throughout Google’s history, we’ve given our employees a lot of voice and say,” said Pichai. “But we don’t we don’t run the company by holding referendums. It’s an important input. We take it seriously.”
When asked why Google allowed the employees the sway their stance on Project Maven, however, Pichai claimed the decision was made because of broader concerns about how the tech community would “perceive our work in this area.”
Pichai’s statements seem to suggest that Google didn’t choose to sever ties with the Pentagon as a result of any moral or ethical judgment, but rather as a PR decision. Working with the Chinese government to limit its people’s access to any kind of content the government deems inappropriate: including anything considered critical of China’s president, Xi Jinping, who recently had the national government overturn presidential term limits to allow him to remain in power indefinitely.
In fact, for weeks following that legislative change, the Chinese government censored any uses of the words “emperor,” “two-term limit” and even “control” on the Chinese internet. They likewise banned digital versions of books like “1984,” in what could be seen as a telling gesture. By removing any form of dissenting opinion from the internet, China is able to maintain tight control over public perception for both domestic and foreign enterprises. In effect, China’s censorship of the internet even has indirect effects on America’s military posture in the Pacific.
During Chinese governmental elections, for instance, serious issues like China’s militarization of the South China Sea are banned from publication or discussion online.
“What if some of those constituents wanted to ask a sensitive question about China’s foreign policy in the South China Sea? What if they wanted to discuss one of the ‘forbidden three Ts’ — Tiananmen, Taiwan or Tibet? Would those messages have reached the candidates? How would we know?” Wrote Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyst Fergus Ryan in a recent piece on Chinese cyber-censorship.
Of course, with a figure that’s approaching twice as many internet users in China than there are in the United States, Google wants in on what is expected to grow into a $45 billion Chinese internet search industry in the coming few years, with what analysts project to be an annual growth rate of a massive 16%. Running a search engine for the Chinese government promises to be an extremely profitable endeavor for Google — which is likely the larger reason they’ve opted to ignore internal outcries about the implications of the project.