Memo to Google: Don’t Go Back to China

Google sign at the China Digital Entertainment Expo and Conference in Shanghai, August 3, 2018. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Google and its parent company, Alphabet, have had pretensions to morality since “Don’t be evil” became a corporate motto. But when the company discovered in 2010 that Chinese agents had hacked into the Gmail accounts of dissidents, it decided to stop obeying Chinese censorship laws, in effect withdrawing the bulk of its business from the country. Within months the Communist Party shut down the company’s search engine, as well as Gmail and Google News. But under CEO Sundar Pichai, the company appears to be changing tack. Reports emerged last week that Google was developing versions of a search engine, news service, and cloud-storage platform for the Chinese market in collaboration with Chinese officials.

The plans are preliminary, and we hope the company reconsiders. Its alleged moral compass ought to be able to resist the magnetism of the Chinese market. These products were being developed in secret until the Intercept broke news of the search engine, which is designed to remove banned websites from search results and blacklist verboten queries altogether. Meanwhile the news app, reportedly modeled on news aggregator Toutiao, would deliver content to users based on algorithms — but only content that complies with Chinese censorship laws. And the cloud service is set to rely on data centers in China that are maintained in partnership with domestic companies.

These are not trivial features. No doubt launching a censored search engine and news app would help Google’s bottom line. It might provide Chinese consumers with some marginal benefit if the services are superior to what they currently use. But the downsides would be to legitimate further the Great Firewall censorship regime and to endorse the idea that American businesses should help autocratic regimes suppress information if the market is big enough. The possibility that an executive of an American company will apologize publicly for hosting content that is “incommensurate with socialist core values” — as did the founder of Toutiao when Chinese authorities suspended his app from the marketplace for linking to news they deemed “vulgar” — is not an attractive one.

Our concerns with Google’s possible reentry do not end with censorship, which in China is just one element of a unified state strategy to manage the Internet. As a New America Foundation brief notes, “Party leadership is expanding the legal tools at its disposal to monitor and control information disseminated online.” The 2017 cybersecurity law and a spate of related regulations require “critical information infrastructure” to be based in China and restrict the flow of “sensitive” data. Hence Google is reportedly in talks with state-aligned companies Tencent and Inspur to partner on its cloud service; the data would be stored in China. The party has also tightened its ban on anonymous online activity and ramped up its tracking of personal information, enlisting private companies to help enforce these rules. If Chinese law enforcement demands access to such data, will Google provide it to them? If it wants to comply with the law, it won’t have a choice. No American company should willingly become an adjunct of the Chinese state.

Corporate executives are understandably tempted to gain a foothold in China, and plenty of other companies have yielded to the Chinese regime’s demands on occasion. But there are ways to do business in China without funneling information to the regime or propping up its censorship laws. For eight years Google has survived with a limited presence there. Its plans to expand have not yet been implemented, and the company has faced a political backlash since the news leaked. If Google executives are struggling with their calculus, we offer some advice: Access to 750 million Internet users is not worth collaborating with adversarial dictatorships.


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