7 min read

Wired has managed to do what Congress couldn’t – bring together tech industry leaders in the US and ask the pressing questions of our times, in a safe and welcoming space. Just for this, they deserve applause.

Yesterday at Wired 25 summit, Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, among other things, opened up to Backchannel’s Editor in chief, Steven Levy, about Project Dragonfly for the first time in public. Project Dragonfly is the secretive search engine that Google is allegedly developing which will comply with the Chinese rules of censorship. The following is my analysis of why Google is deeply invested in project Dragonfly. 

Google’s mission since its inception has been to organize the world’s information and to make it universally accessible, as Steven puts it. When asked if this has changed in 2018, Pichai responded saying Google’s mission remains the same, and so do its founding values. However what has changed is the scale at which their operation, their user base, and their product portfolio. In effect, this means the company now views everything it does from a wider lens instead of just thinking about its users.

Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, live from our #WIRED25 summit

We're live with Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google at our #WIRED25 Summit in San Francisco.

Posted by WIRED on Monday, October 15, 2018

For Google, China is an untapped source of information

“We are compelled by our mission [to] provide information to everyone, and [China is] 20 percent of the world’s population”,  said Pichai.

He believes China is a highly innovative and underserved market that is too big to be ignored. For this reason, according to Pichai at least, Google is obliged to take a long-term view on the subject. But there are a number of specific reasons that make China compelling to Google right now.

China is a huge social experiment at scale, with wide-scale surveillance and monitoring – in other words, data. But with the Chinese government keen to tightly control information about the country and its citizens, its not necessarily well understood by businesses from outside the country. This means moving into China could be an opportunity for Google to gain a real competitive advantage in a number of different ways.

Pichai confirmed that internal tests show that Google can serve well over 99 percent of search queries from users in China. This means they probably have a good working product prototype to launch soon, should a window of opportunity arise.

These lessons can then directly inform Google’s decisions about what to do next in China. What can Google do with all that exclusive knowledge?

Pichai wrote earlier last week to some Senate members who wanted answers on Project Dragonfly that Google could have “broad benefits inside and outside of China.” He did not go into detail, but these benefits are clear. Google would gain insight into a huge country that tightly controls information about itself and its citizens.

Helping Google to expand into new markets

By extension, this will then bring a number of huge commercial advantages when it comes to China. It would place Google in a fantastic position to make China another huge revenue stream. Secondly, the data harvested in the process could provide a massive and critical boost to Google’s AI research, products and tooling ecosystems that others like Facebook don’t have access to.

The less obvious but possibly even bigger benefits for Google are the wider applications of its insights. These will be particularly useful as it seeks to make inroads into other rapidly expanding markets such as India, Brazil, and the African subcontinent.

Helping Google to consolidate its strength in western nations

As well as helping Google expand, it’s also worth noting that Google’s Chinese venture could support the company as it seeks to consolidate and reassert itself in the west. Here, markets are not growing quickly, but Google could do more to advance its position within these areas using what it learns from business and product innovations in China.

The caveat: Moral ambivalence is a slippery slope

Let’s not forget that the first step into moral ambiguity is always the hardest. Once Google enters China, the route into murky and morally ambiguous waters actually gets easier.

Arguably, this move could change the shape of Google as we know it. While the company may not care if it makes a commercial impact, the wider implications of how tech companies operate across the planet could be huge.

How is Google rationalizing the decision to re-enter China

Letting a billion flowers bloom and wither to grow a global forest seems to be at the heart of Google’s decision to deliberately pursue China’s market. Following are some ways Google has been justifying its decision

We never left China

When asked about why Google has decided to go back to China after exiting the market in 2010, Pichai clarified that Google never left China. They only stopped providing search services there. Android, for example, has become one of the popular mobile OSes in China over the years.

He might as well have said ‘I already have a leg in the quicksand, might as well dip the other one’. Instead of assessing the reasons to stay in China through the lens of their AI principles, Google is jumping into the state censorship agenda.

Being legally right is morally right

“Any time we are working in countries around the world, people don’t understand fully, but you’re always balancing a set of values… Those values include providing access to information, freedom of expression, and user privacy… But we also follow the rule of law in every country,” said Pichai in the Wired 25 interview.

This seems to imply that Google sees legal compliance analogous ethical practices. While the AI principles at Google should have guided them regarding situations precisely like this one, it has reduced to an oversimplified ‘don’t create killer AI’ tenet.  Just this Tuesday, China passed a law that is explicit about how it intends to use technology to implement extreme measures to suppress free expression and violate human rights.

Google is choosing to turn a blind eye to how its technology could be used to indirectly achieve such nefarious outcomes in an efficient manner.

We aren’t the only ones doing business in China

Another popular reasoning, though not mentioned by Google, is that it is unfair to single out Google and ask them to not do business in China when others like Apple have been benefiting from such a relationship over the years.

Just because everyone is doing something, it does not make it intrinsically right. As a company known for challenging the status quo and for stand by its values, this marks the day when Google lost its credentials to talk about doing the right thing.

Time and tech wait for none. If we don’t participate, we will be left behind

Pichai said, “Technology ends up progressing whether we want it to or not. I feel on every important technology it is important that you work aggressively to make sure the outcome is good.”

Now that is a typical engineering response to a socio-philosophical problem. It reeks of hubris that most tech executives in Silicon Valley wear as badges of honor.

We’re making information universally accessible and thus enriching lives

Pichai observed that in China there are many areas, such as cancer treatment options, where Google can provide better and more authentic information than what products and services available.

I don’t know about you, but when an argument leans on cancer to win its case, I typically disregard it.

All things considered, in the race for AI domination, China’s data is the holy grail. An invitation to watch and learn from close quarters is an offer too good to refuse, for even Google. Even as current and former employees, human rights advocacy organizations, and Senate members continue to voice their dissent strongly, Google is sending a clear message that it isn’t going to back down on Project Dragonfly.

The only way to stop this downward moral spiral at this point appears to be us, the Google current users, as the last line of defense to protect human rights, freedom of speech and other democratic values.

That gives me a sinking feeling as I type this post in Google docs, use Chrome and Google search to gather information just way I have been doing for years now.

Are we doomed to a dystopian future, locked in by tech giants that put growth over stability, viral ads over community, censorship, and propaganda over truth and free speech?

Welcome to 1984.


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Managing Editor, Packt Hub. Former mainframes/DB2 programmer turned marketer/market researcher turned editor. I love learning, writing and tinkering when I am not busy running after my toddler. Wonder how algorithms would classify this!