Google (Alphabet) recently decided to end its participation in a US military drone program, whereby Google had been supplying its AI technology to the US government. This came after 4,000 Googlers decried the company's involvement in what could turn into "autonomous killing machines," demanding an exit from "the business of war." It was Google deciding to live up to its "Don't be evil" mantra.
Apparently that same credo doesn't apply to embracing state-sponsored censorship in authoritarian China. Eight years ago Google co-founder Sergey Brin told The Wall Street Journal, "[I]n some aspects of [China's] policy, particularly with respect to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see some earmarks of totalitarianism." Today, when cash is on the line, the company is marching back into China with a state-censored search tool.
As the Journal concludes, "This does not compute."
Getting out of China
As knee-jerk as Google's decision to exit the US military's Project Maven may be, its decision to abandon China eight years ago was not. Google originally accepted Chinese censorship as a cost of doing business in China (and speaking cynically, as the price it had to pay to get access to a market that dwarfs the size of the US market). China repaid this gesture with a cyberattack that went after Google and a number of other companies, which also featured the hacking of the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
SEE: Artificial intelligence: Trends, obstacles, and potential wins (Tech Pro Research)
For Google, it was too much. The company rerouted its traffic to Hong Kong and ended the censorship of search results. The "earmarks of totalitarianism" had been there all along, of course, but Google had been forced to face up to the reality of China.
Now, nearly a decade later, the lure of China's money has Google embracing a neutered, state-sanctioned search experience yet again. As part of this Faustian bargain, Google will almost certainly have to cede access to vast troves of private information to Chinese authorities. That's the price of doing business in an increasingly totalitarian China.
Applying Google's AI principles to China
As the company grapples with the allure of China, perhaps Google should more broadly apply the principles and objectives outlined in its "Artificial Intelligence at Google." Those objectives are that AI should:
- Be socially beneficial
- Avoid creating or reinforcing unfair bias
- Be built and tested for safety
- Be accountable to people
- Incorporate privacy design principles
- Uphold high standards of scientific excellence
- Be made available for uses that accord with these principles
If we replace "AI" with "search," it's clear that Google's noble ambitions in the AI space are completely off in its Chinese search plans. Everything from privacy to social benefit are being put up for auction with this search deal.
SEE Deep learning: An insider's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
Meanwhile, take a look at Google's list of "AI Applications We Will Not Pursue":
- Technologies that cause or are likely to cause overall harm. Where there is a material risk of harm, we will proceed only where we believe that the benefits substantially outweigh the risks, and will incorporate appropriate safety constraints.
- Weapons or other technologies whose principal purpose or implementation is to cause or directly facilitate injury to people.
- Technologies that gather or use information for surveillance violating internationally accepted norms.
- Technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.
By Google's own stated principles, its course in China should be very clear: Stay out. It's fine if the company wants to backtrack on its decision to not help the US military, deciding that "Don't be evil" may have been misapplied in the Project Maven case. Or the company could stick with its principles while applying the same principles to search in China. What is not fine is for the company to presume to dictate morality to the US government while simultaneously selling that morality to the Chinese government. A little consistency would be appreciated.
What do you think about Google's plans to launch a censored search engine in China? Share your opinions with fellow TechRepublic members.
Matt is currently head of the developer ecosystem at Adobe. The views expressed are his own, not those of his employer.
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.