Being evil? Google to offer state-censored search engine in China

Just how much cooperation with oppression does it take to cross the line for one of biggest tech companies in the world, whose motto was until very recently “Don’t be evil”? Google might have to answer that question to both users and investors after the Intercept published information from its secret plans to launch its services in China. The new platform, built in coordination with Beijing’s authoritarian government, will cooperate in its denial of access to information on human rights and democracy, among many other forbidden topics and resources:

GOOGLE IS PLANNING to launch a censored version of its search engine in China that will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest, The Intercept can reveal.

The project – code-named Dragonfly – has been underway since spring of last year, and accelerated following a December 2017 meeting between Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai and a top Chinese government official, according to internal Google documents and people familiar with the plans.

Teams of programmers and engineers at Google have created a custom Android app, different versions of which have been named “Maotai” and “Longfei.” The app has already been demonstrated to the Chinese government; the finalized version could be launched in the next six to nine months, pending approval from Chinese officials.

Just how far into Beijing’s corner will Google go, if the Intercept is correct? They could set up the service to block only the first level of searching to satisfy China’s censors, and allow subsequent levels to generate broader results for freer access to information. They could try to do that. They won’t, however:

Documents seen by The Intercept, marked “Google confidential,” say that Google’s Chinese search app will automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall. When a person carries out a search, banned websites will be removed from the first page of results, and a disclaimer will be displayed stating that “some results may have been removed due to statutory requirements.” Examples cited in the documents of websites that will be subject to the censorship include those of British news broadcaster BBC and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

The search app will also “blacklist sensitive queries” so that “no results will be shown” at all when people enter certain words or phrases, the documents state. The censorship will apply across the platform: Google’s image search, automatic spell check and suggested search features will incorporate the blacklists, meaning that they will not recommend people information or photographs the government has banned.

This might explain why Google purged its old “Don’t be evil” motto sometime this spring. Gizmodo noticed the change in mid-May, just a few months after Pichai met up with high-ranking officials in Beijing to discuss the new platform:

Google’s unofficial motto has long been the simple phrase “don’t be evil.” But that’s over, according to the code of conduct that Google distributes to its employees. The phrase was removed sometime in late April or early May, archives hosted by the Wayback Machine show.

“Don’t be evil” has been part of the company’s corporate code of conductsince 2000. When Google was reorganized under a new parent company, Alphabet, in 2015, Alphabet assumed a slightly adjusted version of the motto, “do the right thing.” However, Google retained its original “don’t be evil” language until the past several weeks. The phrase has been deeply incorporated into Google’s company culture—so much so that a version of the phrase has served as the wifi password on the shuttles that Google uses to ferry its employees to its Mountain View headquarters, sources told Gizmodo.

Coincidence? Maybe. But if the Intercept’s information is accurate, perhaps it was just a pre-emptive move to eliminate an obvious point of hypocrisy from the criticisms they had to know would follow.

In business terms, it makes some sense. China is a big market, and the regime isn’t going anywhere. There’s a lot of money yo be made there, and it’s not the first time that American tech companies have bent to Beijing’s will on information suppression. That strategu hasn’t worked out to be all peaches and cream for Google’s competitors, however. A couple of years ago, China began regulatory harassment of Microsoft after they ended support for XP, which was widely used in China … by people and government offices that had pirated the software.

Still, Microsoft makes plenty of sales in China, and Google would certainly love to compete there for a big market share. The love of money has its allure, after all. In fact, Paul’s letter to Timothy had something to say about that two thousand years go. “For the love of money is the root of all …” Er, what was that last word, Google? Guess I’ll have to search on Yahoo to find that.