For a few moments this week, Google found itself in the usual position of being in receipt of quite a bit of public sympathy after US President Donald Trump accused the search engine of bias for having the temerity to link to news which was critical of his administration.
Then everyone remembered that they were considering complying with the odious censorship regime of the Chinese Communist Party, and normal service was resumed.
Project Dragonfly protestations
Since we last reported about ‘Project Dragonfly’, Google’s scheme to develop a censored web search facility, they have come in for an unrelenting barrage of criticism which shows no sign of letting up.
It began with their own employees. Earlier this month it was revealed that no fewer than 1,400 Google employees have signed a letter to the company’s management criticizing their planned return to the Chinese market.
In the letter, they expressed the view that abiding by the CCP’s censorship requirement raised moral and ethical issues and called for significantly greater transparency over what the company’s intentions were.
Such widespread internal opposition to the move appears to present a significant threat to Google plans, which is somewhat ironic given that it is this type of popular challenge to authority that the CCPs online censorship regime is designed to prevent.
Then, yesterday there was another challenge to Google’s plans coming from a rather unlikely source; the UK Foreign Secretary.
Jeremy Hunt posted on Twitter that Google appeared to be abandoning its moral values by agreeing to censor content in China but refusing to help the UK and US Government’s efforts to remove online child abuse content.
Given the UK’s draconian online surveillance laws, which are by some distance the worst in the free world, it seems somewhat hypocritical for Hunt to question anyone else’s online moral values.
But his comments serve to emphasise that, if Google does get into bed with the CCP over censorship, it will be ceding the moral high ground on just about every issue and can expect the issue to be used as a stick to beat it with again and again.
Rights Groups unite
But by far the most virulent attack on Google over this issue has come from a collection of rights organisations. More than a dozen such groups, which focus on everything from online rights to human rights, have signed an open letter to Google calling on the firm not to capitulate over human rights in China.
Signatories to the letter include Amnesty International, Access Now, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights in China, Human Rights Watch, Privacy International and Reporters Without Borders.
Addressed directly to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, the letter highlights just a few of the CCP’s numerous ongoing human rights violations and state that by complying with their censorship, Google will be actively participating in the repression of freedom of speech and freedom of expression in China.
It criticizes Pichai for failing to issue any public statements about Project Dragonfly, despite the obvious concerns his own employees have about the programme. According to the letter’s signatories, Google is falling short of its own commitments to accountability and transparency.
It calls on Google to publicly reaffirm the commitment it made when withdrawing from the Chinese market in 2010 that it would not provide a censored search service in China.
And lastly, the letter asks the company to reveal its corporate stance on Chinese censorship and what steps would be taken to prevent any possible human rights violations linked to Project Dragonfly.
Google’s head still in the sand
Google has so far refused to comment publicly on Project Dragonfly, stating that it does not comment on leaks. But with the issue rapidly spiralling into a PR disaster all over the world, it seems likely that they will have no choice but to make their position clear in response to this letter.
While it is understandable that Google is interested in taking a slice of the considerably large pie that is the Chinese internet economy, it is important that the company understands the consequences of such actions.
Their reputation around the world has taken a considerable hit by even contemplating such a move. Should they go ahead with it, the backlash should, and will, be considerable.
The Chinese online censorship regime is a reprehensible programme which denies the Chinese people access to many of the internet’s most basic online services.
Its sole purpose is to help the CCP remain in power by denying their people access to information. By complying with it, Google will therefore be complicit in keeping one of the world’s worst authoritarian regime in power.
In China, accessing an open internet is only possible with the help of a VPN. And until that changes, Google should have nothing to with the regime there.