Google plays with dragon fire in courting China
Google would like you to know that it is transparent.
This was the mantra repeated by Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai when queried by the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday. That was the word he used when asked about everything from the algorithms used to optimize search results to the location data its phones and apps beam back to third-party developers.
The pledge for transparency was most steadfast, however, when Pichai was asked about China.
Google has faced a backlash since the reports first surfaced in August about a project known as “Dragonfly,” a search engine for China that would help the government censor the web and track its users. “Right now we have no plans to launch in China,” Pichai assured lawmakers. But if the company changes its mind, he said, “I will be fully transparent.”
Corporate pledges of transparency are commonplace (and commonly broken). But Google is a different story. Remember, the public found out about Dragonfly after Google employees leaked the story. As Pichai tried to address the matter internally, more accounts of the debate over Dragonfly made their way into the press. Hundreds of Google employees went public with an open letter urging their bosses to cancel the project.
So when Pichai promises transparency, he doesn’t really have much of a choice. In this sense, Google is like an elite NBA team: The star talent has more leverage than the managers. If employees decide they no longer want to work at Google, there are plenty of tech companies eager to poach them. So when they don’t like something their employer is doing, they question authority. They protest. They leak.
That said, Pichai should have had a better answer when it comes to Dragonfly. He could have more fully explained his own thinking about why Google is willing to explore getting back into the Chinese market despite its history there. (Google left China in 2010 after it discovered a hack of its source code and the data of Chinese dissidents).
He did say that Google’s “core mission is to provide users with access to information.” But he could have also made the case why it is worth taking a risk again in China, and what steps his company would take to protect its intellectual property and its customers’ personal data from a voracious Chinese national security state.
Even with such safeguards, it is still not worth it for Google. Surely Pichai must realize that there is also a large market for Google products in the countries bordering — and threatened by — China. Instead of exploring how to get back into a country that targets foreign concerns and compels them to abet a Big Brother state, he could redouble his company’s efforts to “provide users with access to information” in India, Vietnam and Indonesia.
For now, it’s worth taking Pichai at his word when he promises transparency with China. Even if he wanted to keep Google’s deliberations secret, his engineers wouldn’t let him.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.
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