US Congress Grill Google On China Censorship Plans

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Google faces calls from six US senators, numerous human rights groups, and 1,000 staff over China expansion

Google is under mounting pressure to explain its intention to return to the Chinese market, which may see it comply with Chinese government censorship and surveillance requests.

The pressure was ramped up this week after a bipartisan group of 16 US lawmakers wrote a letter to Google, asking if the Alphabet owned firm would be complying with China’s censorship and surveillance policies should it re-enter the Chinese market.

Google’s decision to try and re-enter the Chinese market has also prompted deep concern from its own staff, some of whom have reportedly resigned over the matter.

Chinese ambitions?

It comes after a number of media reports earlier this month suggested Google was seeking to re-enter the Chinese market with an Android search app that would blacklist content deemed unacceptable by Chinese authorities.

That decision to develop a mobile search app (Project Dragonfly) for China is hugely controversial, as it opens the firm up to allegations of supporting state censorship.

Google has apparently faced an internal petition from “hundreds of staff” calling for more transparency and oversight of the project.

But this has been less than forthcoming.

Alphabet’s chief executive Sundar Pichai earlier this month reportedly confirmed that Google was not close to launching a search engine app in China, but Pichai did confirm the firm is developing the app, and that “providing more services in that country fits with Google’s global mission.”

Many staff feel that the development of the controversial app would violate Google’s “don’t be evil” clause in its code of conduct.

China of course is widely considered to have one of the most repressive Internet censorship schemes in the world, which is designed to prevent criticism of the ruling Communist Party and suppress dissent and other information deemed dangerous to the state.

Lawmaker letter

And now the pressure on Google has increased a notch after Reuters reported that more than 1,000 Google employees, six US senators and at least fourteen human rights groups have written to the company expressing concern about its China ambitions.

Reuters said that members of the US House of Representatives, including liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, said in their letter on Thursday they had “serious concerns” about the potential step.

The letter reportedly asked if Google would “ensure that individual Chinese citizens or foreigners living in China, including Americans, will not be surveilled or targeted through Google applications.”

Meanwhile, Jack Poulson, a research scientist who had worked for Google for more than two years, told Reuters that he had resigned because he felt the company was not honouring its commitment to human rights norms in designing the search app.

Poulson reportedly said that Google did not answer whether it would agree to Chinese demands.

“Unfortunately, the virtually unanimous response over the course of three very vocal weeks of escalation was: ‘I don’t know either,’” Poulson reportedly said.

Poulson was among a handful of Google staff who reportedly resigned over the matter.

And Google is likely to face questions about China when it testifies on privacy issues before a Senate panel on 26 September.

Project Dragonfly

The Project Dragonfly app is apparently being tailored for the Android operating system.

Google has reportedly demonstrated the service to Chinese government officials, but the app would still require Chinese government approval before it could be launched in that country.

The search app is said to automatically identify and filter websites blocked by China’s ‘Great Firewall’.

It should be remembered that Google effectively retreated from the Chinese market in 2010 and its websites and services remain blocked in that country, after it refused to abide by its censorship rules.

Google at the time accused Chinese-based hackers of carrying out a number of attacks on the Gmail accounts of human rights activists. That triggered a huge political row between America and China in 2011.

Despite that retreat, Google still has several hundred staff in China, and in December 2017 it launched its own artificial intelligence (AI) lab there.

And this is not the first time that Google’s management has angered its own staff.

Some Google staff resigned earlier this year because of a controversial contract with the Pentagon to use artificial intelligence (AI) for weapons systems.

Such was the backlash that in June this year Google pledged to end the project, and it told its staff that it would not renew its contract with the US Department of Defence when it expires next year.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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