Opponents of Google’s Project Dragonfly — a censored Chinese search engine — and internet censorship, in general, should have found little relief in Sundar Pichai, the company’s CEO, testimony before Congress. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy asked Pichai, regarding Project Dragonfly:
Right this very second, China’s authoritarian system detains more than a million religious minorities in re-education camps. Mr. Pichai, I urge you to reflect on that fact and on the promise your company made when it pulled out of the China market in 2010, and I applauded you for that move in 2010.
Back then, Google promised it would not censor its search results in China or compromise its commitment to a free and open internet. In light of the recent events, I think the American people deserve to know, [has] something changed, and if so, what?
Initially, Pichai said Google had no plans to build a search engine that would allow Beijing to censor the searches of Chinese citizens, yet as the hearing dragged on, it became evident that this was not entirely the case. Pichai admitted that significant staff time and resources were spent on Project Dragonfly, all-the-while trying to brush off the project as a “limited effort.”
Google has had a checkered history with censorship. Leaked documents show that Google sought avenues to balance free speech with the censorship of content they viewed as harmful or driven by bad actors.
While some might argue that Google’s intentions are noble — that their struggle with finding “balance” between free speech and censorship is responsible — labeling individuals and groups as bad actors or harmful can inspire others to be far less thoughtful.
China has been engaged in a widespread and even violent crackdown on what Beijing assuredly considers bad and harmful actors. Upward of one million ethnic Uighurs in Western China have been rounded up and placed in re-education camps. In Hong Kong, journalists and free speech activists have been threatened and barred from entering the city, sparking an open letter from Hong Kong journalists.
The fears that Google has or will provide technology and data to the Chinese government are very real — and non-partisan. Think Progress has called Project Dragonfly “a major threat to human rights.” The liberal outlet reported that Dragonfly would: “Link Chinese users’ search queries directly to their phone numbers … The search engine will also track the locations of Chinese users.”
In the United States, Google has shown itself to be more than willing to cross what its former-Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, called “the creepy line.”
Just a few weeks ago, Google informed free-market and libertarian commentator John Stossel his YouTube video “Socialism Leaders to Violence” violated community standards and as such it would not be viewable by young people. In another instance, Stossel’s videos on Global Warming were required to link to the Global Warming Wikipedia entry.
Across the Atlantic, Google has arguably gone far beyond the European Union’s privacy regulations resulting in accusations of censorship. Citing the “right to be forgotten,” Google has been manipulated by “bad actors” to censor news stories that cast them in a negative light.
One of the most glaring instances being the case of the removal of a BBC article on former Merrill Lynch executive Stan O’Neal who was removed from his position after suffering “colossal losses on reckless investments.”
China, being no fan of transgressive authors, probably looked approvingly upon the 2016 incident in which Google deactivated artist and writer Dennis Cooper’s Gmail account and website.
The fact of the matter is, 90 percent of internet searches run through Google – giving them tremendous influence and power. Their control of market share, combined with their ability to censor and manipulate search engine results is a power that China wishes to emulate. Dr. Robert Epstein, a Harvard educated behavioral psychologist, has written extensively on the issue of search engine manipulation — even detailing how it could swing elections.
Even if Project Dragonfly is “shelved” by Google, they’ve opened a veritable Pandora’s Box when it comes to censorship and search manipulation — something the Chinese, with or without Google’s help, are more than capable of reverse engineering and implementing themselves.