Explainer: Google, China, and human rights

December 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 senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24