In August it was revealed that Google was secretly developing an Android search engine that would conform to China’s strict censorship rules. Codenamed ‘Dragonfly’, the project is Google’s attempt to re-enter China’s significant internet market. Yet for a company that had formerly been associated with liberal values, the news has been received as a remarkable shift in ideology that has both surprised and angered many who see Google’s actions as amounting to a capitulation.
This ideological debate touches on an issue at the epicentre of the expectations placed upon technology companies. Like Facebook, Google has encountered pressure to be an ardent defender of the liberal norms that encompass the open internet ideal. However, these expectations are both misplaced and woefully optimistic. Indeed, Google’s potential re-entry into the Chinese market should not be received a reversal in policy, but rather, as an affirmation of its underlying commercially-orientated agenda which has consistently proven to hold liberal ideology low on its list of priorities.
Commercial agenda vs Liberal ideals
Google has made attempts to establish itself in China before. From 2006 to 2010, its Chinese site tenuously complied with Beijing’s censorship rules, although the two parties had occasional disagreements over sensitive political content. Then in 2010, following an intrusion hack which had attempted to access the emails of Chinese human rights activists, the company opted to leave the country. Though this decision appeared to have been linked to its then motto ‘Don’t be evil’, part of this exit was the result of heavy pressure from advocacy groups, rather than a defence per se of Google’s stated ideological mission. Indeed, since then the company has gone on to transform its motto to ‘Do the right thing’, a more subjective ideology that is suggestive of a step back from the slogan that often put it at odds with Beijing.
This tentative reversal was all but confirmed last month when Google employees leaked details of Dragonfly. Following this, 3,000 employees as well as over a dozen Human Rights Advocacy groups have urged Google to reconsider its policy direction. For its part, Google has yet to deliver a detailed explanation.
Nevertheless, Google’s motive is fairly clear. China has the largest online population in the world with over 772 million internet users. Moreover, with the country only having achieved 55.8% internet availability, it is clear that the phenomenal growth of the Chinese internet market is destined to continue. It therefore makes sense that as one of the five leading tech giants, ignoring one-fifth of the total global internet market is out of the question, particularly when observing the Chinese market-share growth experienced by Google’s competitors; Apple, Microsoft and Amazon.
Given the its clear conflict of interest, the expectation that Google can be a reliable representative for liberal values in the internet age is misplaced. For all it has done to advance the internet, it is still a self-interested corporation.
This is not to suggest that company compliance with Human Rights is completely futile, but rather that, in its current state, it is ineffectual. The Global Network Initiative, a leading authority on online human rights, had previously attempted to develop a multi-stakeholder Human Rights platform with advocacy groups and internet companies including Google in 2008. However, despite the various inspiring obligations it set out, the initiative eventually lost momentum as revelations emerged that many of the same internet companies party to the initiative had directly violated these very guiding principles.
Indeed, Dragonfly is not the first case of a conflict between commercial gain and liberal ideals. Google has been involved in similar scandals before, and has been implicated with selling its users data, and tracking its users without their consent. Furthermore, it has demonstrated no aversion to working with governments on ethically questionable projects such as the infamous Snowden surveillance program, and more recently, with the Pentagon on combining artificial intelligence with drone technology.
Whilst there are those that have questioned Dragonfly’s commercial viability, or whether Beijing would even allow Google to re-enter China, these arguments miss the project’s key revelation. In the event that Google must decide between the defence of idealistic notions and commercial gain, events have demonstrated the company’s preference for the latter. Effectively, Dragonfly illustrates Google's continuing disregard for liberal ideals.
This is less of a criticism of Google than it is a condemnation of society’s expectations. To be consistently surprised when technology companies dismiss liberal ideals risks the discussion toward resolving the issue becoming exceedingly unproductive. Until society and lawmakers remove the engrained expectation that Internet corporations can self-regulate their adherence to liberal ideals, one should accordingly expect their violation to be a perpetual occurrence. Whilst it was liberal ideals that fostered the birth of these technology companies, that is by no means a guarantee that they can be entrusted to uphold them.
Michael Nguyen is an Intern at the Lowy Institute and the assistant intern Co-ordinator at AIIA, NSW.