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Explainer: Google, China, and human rights

Dec 13, 2018

On Tuesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai appeared before the House Judiciary Committee in a hearing to discuss Google’s practices in privacy, data collection, government projects, anti-trust regulations, and recent security breaches. Google has been under intense scrutiny for a project that has been developing call Project Dragonfly, which is believed to be a censored search engine to debut in China in cooperation with the communist Chinese government. Here is what you should know about the project and how it intersects with human rights:

What is Project Dragonfly?

Project Dragonfly is a project that Google has been working on in cooperation with the Chinese government to provide a new search engine app for China’s over 1.3 billion residents. The Chinese market is a huge area of potential growth for U.S. tech companies, specifically Google, whose main source of revenue is advertising. Google has not released detailed plans for the app and has not publicly acknowledged the project exists, outside of some brief remarks earlier this year from its chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, back in September 2018 before a Senate Commerce Committee hearing. Enright was questioned by Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and said, “My understanding is we are not, in fact, close to launching a search product in China, and whether we would or could at some point in the future remains unclear.”

In September 2018, the Intercept reported that Google executives forced employees to delete an internal memo drafted by an engineer who was asked to work on Project Dragonfly. The memo contained concerns over the company’s involvement with Chinese government on creating a search product that would censor what the government deems sensitive information such as democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest.

Google famously shut down its Google.cn censored search engine in 2010 and rerouted the searches through its normal search engine based out of Hong Kong. It declared then that it was committed to a free and open internet for all.

What happened in the hearing?

Reports indicate that most of the three-and-half-hour hearing touched on an array of issues but mainly focused on how Google’s search algorithms may exhibit bias against conservative policy and politicians. These AI-based algorithms are often seen as “black boxes” because the outputs are usually mysterious and tend to produce results without much explanation to the public. Many committee members claimed in the hearing that Google is intentionally burying conservative content and promoting views that are contrary to conservative policy. Many Democrats defended the company’s search engine while Republicans saw these moves as politically motivated and intentionally biased. It should be noted that most of the information in the United States and the world run through Google’s search algorithms, so this type of bias could lead to misinformation and possibly sway public opinion.

Google CEO Pichai was asked bluntly by many members of the committee about Google’s supposed bias. The CEO rebutted those claims by insisting that he leads Google “without political bias.” He went on to say, “We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions—and we have no shortage of them among our own employees."   When asked directly about Project Dragonfly, Pichai repeated that the company has no plans to enter China and would be transparent if it ever does.

When pressed by members of the committee, especially Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), Pichai confirmed that Google has only undertaken an internal effort on the project but has no plans on entering the Chinese market at this time. The CEO then reiterated Google’s commitment to providing information for its users and that they continue to explore how to best give users access to information.

What comes next? 

Public pressure on Google to not work with Chinese government on the search engine project is mounting, but it may be some time before we learn what impact it might have on Google’s plans. Google has succumbed to internal and external pressures on other projects in the past, such as Project Maven, which was a partnership with the Department of Defense to develop an artificial intelligence program that could be used to process massive amounts of video data captured by drones in the battlefield and report back with potential enemy targets. Google pulled out of a partnership with the DOD on Project Maven in June 2018 by stating the company did not want to be in the business of war. Its infamous company slogan for years was “Don’t Be Evil” before it was changed in 2015 by the new parent company, Alphabet, to “Do the Right Thing.” It remains unclear if Google will proceed with Project Dragonfly, but it should be noted that Google employees are indeed working on the project and that Google has not provided a clear answer as to their future plans for entering the Chinese market.  

What does the Chinese government censor, and why does it matter?

The Intercept reported that Google’s potential search engine for China will comply with the Communist Party’s harsh censorship policies on human rights, democracy, free speech, and religion. This censorship is seen as directly opposed to the freedoms that Americans and members of other democracies enjoy. The Communist Party states that it censors information in order to protect its citizens from outside influences and to protect classified information, but this censorship is seen by the watching world as a ruse to protect its power and authority by intentionally suppressing knowledge for its people. A number of human rights groups and advocates publicly called on Congress to address these violations during the hearing with Pichai.

China has been involved in controversial uses of technology and artificial intelligence for many years, including the use of a massive surveillance network used to control its citizens, assign social value scores, and stamp out any political dissidents. The Economist reported in October about how these surveillance tools are used against Chinese citizens. These human rights violations are directly opposed to the democratic values that affirm the dignity and worth of every human being in principle. But more than democratic values, these abuses of human rights go against the very core of the Christian understanding of every human life having value and worth because we are created in the image of God and have certain God-given rights of liberty and conscience.

How could this be used against the church?

As Chinese officials use the government’s power to suppress information and stamp out dissidents, the Christian community is thriving in China, albeit underground. According to Purdue University scholar Yang Fenggang, there are an estimated 115 million Protestant Christians in China. While China is an officially atheistic nation, the Christian church has grown under the oppressive regime and its policing policies.  

Recently, Fox News reported through the Associated Press that dozens of Christians were detained by the Chinese government during a raid on a Chinese church. This is yet another example of how Christians are being persecuted for their faith in China. Most of the evangelical believers being persecuted are not a part of the Chinese Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), which is a state-sanctioned body of Protestant churches heavily constrained by the Chinese government. TSPM was specifically designed to remove any outside influences on the Chinese people and is the only state-sanctioned church in China. All other churches must be underground in order to be protected from raids, persecution, or risk of being imprisoned.

Read more about the church in China here.

What can be done?

Google has the option of not providing their search services in China based on moral objections to the practices of the Chinese government. Many, including Klon Kitchen from the Heritage Foundation, argue that Google is choosing profits over morality as they continue to work on Project Dragonfly while refusing to work on certain U.S. defense projects like Project Maven. Others point out that cooperation with the Chinese government at this junction may produce some lasting changes to the repressive system of censorship and misinformation.

It remains to be seen what the long game is for Google concerning Project Dragonfly and plans for the search app for China. It is concerning, however, that the U.S.-based tech giant would be openly considering working with the Chinese government to propagate censorship, anti-democratic values, and surveil the Chinese people, while not providing clear answers to Congress about its U.S. practices that are potentially politically biased and contain misinformation.  

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as creative director and associate research fellow at ERLC. In his role as creative director, he oversees all creative projects including design, video, web, audio, and print media. He writes and speaks on topics including human dignity, technology, and artificial intelligence.... Read More