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22Aug

Google Hits a Globalization Trip Wire: Censorship

Only months after rising up to squelch a product being developed by Google for the U.S. military, employees of the tech giant are protesting again, this time after reports surfaced about a Google Search product being readied for the China market. The new Android phone app would automatically filter out results from blocked websites, return blank results for blacklisted search terms, and meet government surveillance requirements. According to The Intercept’s reporting, CEO Sundar Pichai asked his team to have the product ready for release, if and when approved, following a series of meetings with government officials that include several product demos. 

As the number of people online in China approaches one billion, Google and its parent Alphabet are anxious to ratchet up their involvement. After pulling its web search product out of China in 2010 – partly to protest state censorship – the company stayed active in other ways. It sold ads on content outside of China from its operation in Shanghai, launched a major research and development center in Beijing, and ran a popular daohang (“navigation” or start page) known as 265.com

Google purchased that site in 2008, allowing it to collect search queries from millions of Chinese users. The site sports a search banner across the top, which captures the search string data before sending its users off to Baidu to load the search results. This service allowed Google to keep its finger on the pulse in mainland China after pulling its own flagship product. 

Meanwhile, the success of Google’s Android OS in China has been staggering, with 80% penetration among the country’s 600,000 smartphones, giving it nearly half a billion users in the world’s second largest economy. The stakes could not be higher to start monetizing the company’s investment. The project’s code name, Dragonfly, expresses the aspiration: literally, Dragon (China) fly (takes off). 

Not so fast, say some employees at Google. After the blowup over AI work being done for a Pentagon project, Alphabet published a set of AI principles in July, which direct the company to ensure that its products and services respect human rights laws and do not harm people. A letter circulating among employees in August identified Dragonfly and several other projects as likely violations of the guidelines, stating, “currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment.” The letter has gained over 1,400 signatures.

When the Pentagon project came to light, Google was hit with departures of prominent engineering and management talent, who did not want their careers tangled up in machines that kill people. In turn, Google decided not to renew the contract. While Dragonfly commenced early in 2017, the juxtaposition of it leaking just after the AI Principles came out led some employees to call for: “An ethics review structure that includes rank and file employee representatives” and “appointment of ombudspeople with meaningful employee input into their selection” to vet the ethics of all work undertaken by the company.

Organizations like Google, whose 88,000 employees signed on to work for a company with a motto of “Don’t Be Evil”, have a heightened exposure to this type of risk, but all organizations risk losing human capital when anti-social business dealings come to light. People leave, or they stay but lose drive; it gets harder to hire new talent. Bad press, brand damage, customer defections, and financial losses can also ensue. When perceived as acquiescing to the demands of a foreign or domestic government – especially involving activities that go against the ethos of the home market, as in Google’s case – the damage could be permanent. How many engineers can a firm afford to lose before it damages innovation and competitiveness?

To expand globally, brands seek to enter new markets. But that doesn’t mean employees will be willing to work on projects that betray their core values. In the era of Agile development and live tweeting from company meetings, strategies that allow organizations to keep secrets – from their employees, customers, and investors – keep coming up short. The principles of transparency requested by the Google employees point to the right path forward for boards, officers, and executives. In the long run, that is the only way to ensure the continuing trust of the creative workforce, the customers, and the investment community.  

About the Author

Benjamin Sargent

Benjamin Sargent

Member of the Technology Advisory Board

Focuses on translation management systems and content management technologies

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