Earlier this year, Google employees took what they called an “ethical stand” against helping the United States Defense Department establish a new system that leaned on artificial intelligence to identify elements of importance in reconnaissance images and videos. While the endeavor aimed to reduce the human labor associated with sifting through the countless surveillance feeds American intelligence officials are tasked with scouring, many within the massive internet corporation colored the program as some sort of target acquisition program — making the deductive leap that their efforts would be used in autonomous killing machines, rather than in the musky offices of agencies like the CIA and NSA.
In truth, the endeavor aimed at streamlining the ways in which we can sift through our intelligence feeds could be seen as a means to save innocent lives and the lives of American warfighters in harm’s way, while admittedly doing so by improving the apparatus employed to identify targets and organize offensives against them quickly. In short, expediting the identification of high profile targets could help relay actionable intelligence to American and allied forces on the ground much more quickly, allowing for more time in developing a strategy aimed at killing or capturing said targets, and potentially, providing earlier notice to forces that may soon find themselves the target of attack themselves. The program, dubbed Project Maven, would indeed help to identify these targets, but as the Pentagon and Google both said themselves, the system itself would only offer up suggestions to human users to analyze. Like a Google image search, analysts would sit at their workstation and be presented with the people and situations of note the algorithm had already sifted from hours and hours of footage, allowing the analyst the opportunity to devote his or her time and effort to determining what’s going on in those instances, rather than pouring over the entirety of the footage.
That effort, however, was ultimately killed off at Google, thanks in large part to a high profile series of resignations and further protests from internal employees. Google’s former code of conduct, after all, used to say specifically, “Don’t be evil,” and many contest that aiding in military operations, even those mounted by the United States, could potentially encroach on questionable territory for the tech company. Of course, Google removed the “Don’t be evil” clause from their company policy in May of this year, replacing it instead with the notably subjective, “do the right thing.”
And now, it seems that while Google may see helping to identify terrorists as something other than “doing the right thing,” it’s not above helping one of the most repressive states on the planet offer up a strictly censored form of internet, tailor-made for the purposes of advancing government sponsored ideals.
“I genuinely do believe we have a positive impact when we engage around the world, and I don’t see any reason why that would be different in China,” Chief executive Sundar Pichai told Google staffers who have raised concerns about the company’s plans to offer a Chinese specific variant of their famous search function. Of course, the endeavor to do so would mean Google would have to help enforce China’s strict censorship policies, commonly referred to as “The Great Firewall.” As one simple example, a search of the word “Tiananmen” or even for “Tiananmen tank man” anywhere in China will not produce any results pertaining to the pro-democracy protests that took place there in 1989 whatsoever — as the topic has been censored by the national government. In order for Google to operate within China’s borders, they too would need to adhere to these censorship guidelines — which often include silencing the voices of Chinese citizens that are critical of President Xi Jinping. China recently overturned their regulations pertaining to term limits, effectively ensuring Xi remains in power for life.
Even news produced and released online must be vetted and approved by the government, with journalists forbidden from covering anything unless they receive formal permission from the Chines central government in the form of official credentials. If you are not authorized to write about the news by Xi’s regime, your voice has no place on the internet behind the Great Firewall — once again, a policy Google would have to enforce. Likewise, internet users are not allowed to post online without revealing their real names — in order for the government to prosecute those who violate censorship rules.
In effect, China uses a strict control over the information that flows into China and similar strict control over what Chinese citizens are permitted to say online in order to curtail any potential dissent in the populous. In many ways, then, China’s approach to the internet is not that unlike North Korea’s approach to the international world as a whole: maintain strict control over information and communications, keep the populous shielded from outside thought, and of course, emphasize the agenda of the nation’s appointed leader-for-life.
Google even protested China’s “totalitarian” policies when pulling out Chinese operations in 2010, well before China set about placing a slew of new regulations and guidelines on the digital realm, but like China’s massive movie-going audience, the nation also boasts a huge digital commerce market, making it a profitable venture for any company willing to bow to the authority of Chinese officials. Hollywood, as NEWSREP has previously pointed out, has already begun to lean heavily in this direction, developing films with Chinese financial backing and changing content to suit the Chinese sensors that ultimately get to decide which movies are released within the nation. The recent slew of under-performing blockbuster action movies shows in utter clarity the power the Chinese market (and in turn, government) has over American businesses.
Over 1,400 Google employees are said to have signed a letter calling on the company to provide better transparency regarding this new Chinese search engine they’ve been developing, which apparently carries the name “dragonfly,” however, few have offered up their resignations outright like they did over Google’s involvement in Project Maven, seemingly suggesting that most employees within the tech powerhouse feel more comfortable aiding in the oppression of the Chinese people than they do helping the U.S. Government identify threats in combat zones.
As for Google itself, it seems they have no qualms about working for either the American or Chinese governments, so ultimately, it may be in the hands of Google’s staff to decide whether or not they’re willing to support the oppressive efforts of the Chinese national government while banding together in their rejection of assisting in the legitimate intelligence-gathering efforts of their own. The question, then, is whether or not Google’s employees feel as strongly opposed to “Dragonfly” as they were to Project Maven, because Google did, after all, relent to their pressure regarding the latter.