It’s official: Google is ready and willing to scale the Great Firewall.

On Monday, CEO Sundar Pichai publicly discussed Google’s heretofore secretive project, code-named Dragonfly, in which it plans to launch a Chinese version of its search engine that is compliant with the Chinese government’s online censorship mechanisms.

In August, The Intercept revealed the existence of Dragonfly, which would block search results and websites related to topics such as human rights, religion, and democracy. (The News Lens, currently blocked in China, would ostensibly be excluded from the new search engine, which can only be described, in Trumpian fashion, as "sad.")


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks at the Google I/O developers conference in May 2018.

At the time, the revelations sparked a backlash among employees who said Google had kept them in the dark. Over 1,400 employees signed a letter objecting to Google’s plans, and several have resigned in protest. But this has apparently not stopped Pichai from forging ahead with plans for the censored search tool.

“If Google were to operate in China, what would it look like? What queries will we be able to serve?” he said on Monday at an event hosted by Wired. “It turns out we’ll be able to serve well over 99 percent of the queries.”

Google shut down its Chinese search engine in 2010 after it discovered it had been targeted by a cyberattack from within the country – and that the Gmail accounts of some Chinese human rights activists had been hacked. In doing so, it turned its back on the world’s largest population of internet users.

Project Dragonfly represents a reversal of course for the company, which famously touted the corporate mantra “Don’t Be Evil” until quietly removing it from its code of conduct in May 2018.

Pichai stressed that Google’s return to China was not yet guaranteed, but said a Chinese search engine could help those users searching for government approved topics.

“There are many, many areas where we would provide information better than what's available,” said Pichai, citing treatments for cancer. “Today people either get fake cancer treatments or they actually get useful information,” he added.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Google CEO Sundar Pichai says his company is willing to compromise with censors to help Chinese people get information on topics such as cancer treatments.

Pichai went on to stress that his company’s Chinese expansion plans are all part of a complex bargain.

“People don't understand fully, but you're always balancing a set of values” such as access to information, freedom of expression, and user privacy when entering a new country, he said. “But we also follow the rule of law in every country.”

Of course, the value of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has its place in that balancing act. In 2013, 98 percent of Chinese smartphones were using Android, Google’s mobile operating system. But Chinese competitors are quickly developing alternatives which the government would like to see push Google out of the market. Chinese Android phones also do not have Google’s native apps or its search engine pre-installed, meaning Google loses out on boatloads of potential ad revenue.

This could change, of course, with a move which many will see as Google’s Faustian bargain. But beyond the value of Google shares – which fell Monday after Pichai revealed Dragonfly – Google’s decision echoes increasingly deafening questions over the ethical responsibilities of tech giants which, as for-profit corporations, are stepping into the role of providing public services.

U.S. policymakers have held several high-profile hearings to question tech executives over privacy breaches and social media disinformation. In September, senators questioned a top Google executive on Dragonfly during a committee hearing. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, in his Oct. 5 speech on China, told Google to halt its development of Dragonfly.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

US Vice President Mike Pence can talk all he wants, but can he actually convince Google to abandon Dragonfly?

But Pichai ultimately answers to his shareholders, not to lawmakers nor to the commentators who call on Google to reclaim the moral high ground by abandoning his China plans. Regardless of how you may feel about Pichai’s justification that Google can ultimately help Chinese people in need (and show them ads) by compromising with state censors, it may be unreasonable to keep expecting Google, or its tech contemporaries, to uphold moral stances that run counter to their corporate profitability.

Pichai certainly seemed unfazed by the scrutiny on Monday night, and he has every reason to be. Google occupies a space in the tech ecosystem sufficiently gargantuan as to insulate itself from public pressure – the world will not delete its Gmail accounts and toss away its Android phones overnight.

And while policymakers may continue to publicly criticize Google’s plans, it is unlikely that any measure – short of tougher restrictions on U.S. companies doing business in China, a U.S. antitrust ruling against Google, or, perhaps, a far-fetched decision to nationalize Google and the other private sector tech giants which monopolize the world’s data – will clip this Dragonfly’s wings.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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