Google’s Potential Return to China Presents Ethical Quandary

In light of a recent report that Google has been working on a prototype of a censored version of its search engine that would conform to the Chinese government’s censorship requirements, critics have urged Google to maintain its abstinence from the Chinese market.

As The Intercept recently reported, it seems as though a return by Google to the Chinese market is more likely than not. The project even has a codename – Dragonfly – and demonstrations of specially-made Android apps have been reportedly conducted for Chinese government officials.

‘Teams of programmers and engineers at Google have created a custom Android app, different versions of which have been named “Maotai” and “Longfei.” The app has already been demonstrated to the Chinese government; the finalized version could be launched in the next six to nine months, pending approval from Chinese officials.’ (The Intercept)

The apparent re-embrace of China has drawn criticism, especially considering that eight years ago Google withdrew its Chinese operations due to concerns over censorship and government-sanctioned hacking attempts. Since then, the one-party government has not become more tolerant nor improved their record with respect to IP theft, yet it appears that the massive Chinese marketplace is no longer an entity that Google is willing to leave untapped.

However, some see the decision to coalesce to the Communist Chinese government’s notorious restrictions of free speech as counter to Google’s mission of facilitating access to information. While those in China have some measure of freedom in terms of information access, certain topics that the Chinese government views as counter to its values – which range from political opposition to the Tiananmen Square massacre – can be completely blocked. It is the attempted silencing of critics that is perhaps most alarming to those who are now criticizing Google’s apparent planned re-entry into the Chinese marketplace, and a recent decision made by Google in the name of ethical policy make the China affair even more confounding.

Not long ago, Google announced that it would not renew a defense contract that it had been fulfilling for the Pentagon, known as Project Maven. The U.S. Department of Defense’s website describes the goal of the program, which employs advanced algorithms that can be accurately described as artificial intelligence, to ‘extract objects from massive amounts of moving or still imagery.’

“People and computers will work symbiotically to increase the ability of weapon systems to detect objects,” said Drew Cukor, chief of the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Function Team in the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Operations Directorate-Warfighter Support in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. “Eventually we hope that one analyst will be able to do twice as much work, potentially three times as much, as they're doing now. That's our goal.” (

This melding of Google, AI, and weaponry drew sharp criticism from many Google employees, as was evidenced by the 4,000 employee signatures on a petition demanding “a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.”

The backlash was predictable, in part, because Google maintains a list of ‘AI Applications We (Google) Will Not Pursue’, among them being ‘technologies that cause or are likely to cause overall harm. Where there is a material risk of harm, we will proceed only where we believe that the benefits substantially outweigh the risks, and will incorporate appropriate safety constraints.’ Assistance with a project that would improve the strike capabilities of weaponized drones would seemingly run counter to this aim, though one could also argue greater measures for accuracy would decrease the harm that comes with unintended collateral damage from drone strikes.

Dr. Fei Fei Li, chief scientist for AI at Google Cloud, even predicted in an email exchange the controversy that would arise should Google become too closely aligned with the Defense industry.

“Avoid at ALL COSTS any mention or implication of AI,” she wrote in an email to colleagues reviewed by The New York Times. “Weaponized AI is probably one of the most sensitized topics of AI — if not THE most. This is red meat to the media to find all ways to damage Google.” (NYT)

Despite industry competitors such as Amazon and Microsoft also having professional relationships with the Defense industry, Google’s association with the Pentagon did draw the predicted criticism. So much so that Alphabet chose not to renew its contract for Project Maven.

Google’s willingness to relinquish what are surely lucrative government contracts that are likely to attract some of the brightest minds in the industry warrants some praise, but it also makes the company’s apparent decision to return to the Chinese markets a bit perplexing. How could a shunning of the United States’ defense industry, under what appears to be concerns about the company’s ethical standards, give way to cooperation with one of the most socially oppressive governments within the roster of world powers?

It seems that the issue of China is a simple trade-off: does one eschew the revenue from operations in one of the largest markets, or do they endure the criticism that comes with conforming to the demands of a regime notorious for stifling free speech and independent thought?

If Google has in fact made their choice, it is one that would seemingly go against their recent decision with respect to the American Defense industry. They haven’t formally announced a return to China, however, and indications that they will has sparked backlash from inside and outside of the company’s offices.

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