Disturbing news came out of the tech sector last week when a whistleblower released documents showing that Google is trying to re-enter the Chinese market with a search engine that conforms to the draconian censorship laws China’s internet is bound by. The project, named “Dragonfly” is still ongoing with no definite outcome determined, but just the idea that Google would consider helping the Chinese government and President Xi Jinping in their repression of information, especially considering the actual jailing of journalists, bloggers, and citizens that has stemmed from these laws, is beyond disturbing.
According to internal documents the new search engine would remove content that China views as “sensitive” such as “information about political opponents, free speech, democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest. It would ‘blacklist sensitive queries’ so that ‘no results will be shown’ at all when people enter certain words or phrases” – most definitely including June 4 or Tiananmen Square, which the government meticulously censors, going so far as to forbid the phrases “May 35” and “8×8” among hundreds of others.
A Step Backwards for Google
Google ran a version of its search engine in China from 2006 – 2010. But in 2010 something alarming and completely predictable happened that turned Google around.
In January , Chinese authorities attempted to hack into the Google accounts of several prominent human rights activists. Shortly thereafter, Google made front-page news in announcing that it was prepared to leave China if the government continued to censor its online content. The historic announcement was a momentous step forward in ending internet companies’ complicity in the suppression of online freedom of speech.
Google acknowledged the impossibility of supporting human rights and free expression and censoring content. They redirected the Chinese search engine to their Hong Kong search engine which didn’t censor results. Mainland China eventually banned Google searches. Google helped lead Global Network Initiative, a group of internet companies, nonprofits, academics, and investors interested in promoting user privacy and freedom of information. Google seemed to return to their senses.
But of course nothing is ever that simple. More information is coming out, showing Google never really left China. And the data they collected from their Chinese website directory provided the foundation for their upcoming Chinese mobile search engine.
Do The Right Thing
This all may seem like a forgone conclusion, in a world where every corporation seems out for its self, how can people expect anything different? And why does it even matter? China’s going to censor its internet whether or not Google helps them.
Patrick Poon, China Researcher at Amnesty International, put it best in a statement released by the human rights organization.
“It will be a dark day for internet freedom if Google has acquiesced to China’s extreme censorship rules to gain market access. It is impossible to see how such a move is compatible with Google’s ‘Do the right thing’ motto, and we are calling on the company to change course.
“For the world’s biggest search engine to adopt such extreme measures would be a gross attack on freedom of information and internet freedom. In putting profits before human rights, Google would be setting a chilling precedent and handing the Chinese government a victory.
“This also raises serious questions as to what safeguards Google is putting in place to protect users’ privacy. Would Google rollover and hand over personal data should the Chinese authorities request it?”
Maybe this is why Google changed their motto in 2015 from the unambiguous “Don’t Be Evil”, to “Do the Right Thing.” The right thing for whom? I’m sure some would say gaining market share in China is financially the right thing, but most would agree it certainly feels evil.