Google ‘Thoughtfully Considering’ How To Offer China Services

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Alphabet boss tells US senators that firm is considering China re-entry, but declines to address censorship concerns

Google’s management has failed to address concerns that it will comply with strict censorship laws if it re-enters the potentially lucrative Chinese market.

Google’s parent Alphabet declined to explain its plans for addressing Chinese censorship laws, when it admitted in a letter to US senators that it was considering “a variety of options” to offer additional services in China.

It comes after a bipartisan group of 16 US lawmakers wrote a letter to Google in September, asking if the firm would be complying with China’s censorship and surveillance policies should it re-enter the Chinese market.

Censorship concerns

According to Reuters, a letter dated 31 August was made public last Friday, addressed to six senators.

In the letter, Alphabet chief executive Sundar Pichai reportedly said the company was “thoughtfully considering a variety of options for how to offer services in China in a way that is consistent with our mission.”

Senator Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, was quoted on Friday as saying that he was “really disappointed with Google’s response” about the company’s plans in China.

Google had apparently said it was “unclear” if it would move forward with a search engine in China, and that it was “not in a position to be able to answer detailed questions.”

“Their response to the Senate failed to provide any information about Google’s reported plans to consider launching a censored search engine in China,” Warner reportedly said. “Any effort to get back into China could enable the Chinese government in repressing and manipulating their citizens.”

The letter also apparently said Google was “committed to promoting access to information, freedom of expression, and user privacy, as well as to respecting the laws of jurisdictions in which we operate.”

Project Dragonfly

It comes after a number of media reports in September 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.

The Project Dragonfly app is apparently being tailored for the Android operating system. The search app is said to automatically identify and filter websites blocked by China’s ‘Great Firewall’.

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.

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.

China exit

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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