The Real Google Censorship Scandal

The Real Google Censorship Scandal

This week on the right-wing site Breitbart News, a video surfaced of one of Google’s weekly “T.G.I.F.” meetings, where employees and the leadership engage in heated debates over everything from healthier snack stations to the election of Donald Trump.

Breitbart News described the 2016 video as a “smoking gun” because it showed Sergey Brin, the Google co-founder, telling everyone how he felt about the new leader of the free world.

Spoiler: Not good.

“Myself, as an immigrant, as a refugee, I certainly find this election deeply offensive, and I know many of you do, too,” he said in his flat, nasal voice. He was obviously rattled, as were the other top Google executives on stage with him. “I think it’s a very stressful time, and it conflicts with many of our values.”

Conservatives who have been spreading the canard that social media companies oppress their views — a drum Mr. Trump has himself been banging on lately — seized on the video as proof of Google’s bias. But it should not have shocked anyone to find that Mr. Brin, a Russian exile who built the quirkiest of companies on the planet, is no fan of the president.

Responding to the attack on its motives, a Google spokeswoman said, “Nothing was said at that meeting, or any other meeting, to suggest that any political bias ever influences the way we build or operate our products.”

Blah blah blah. I don’t mean to be cavalier. But I am astonished by the focus on this ridiculous scandal when a much more important issue concerning Google and censorship has been largely ignored by the public and by Washington.

I’m talking about the fact that Google is considering re-entering the Chinese market after leaving it with a lot of righteous indignation less than a decade ago. Reports say it might once again offer a range of services, including a censored version of its flagship search engine.

A Google spokeswoman told me that the controversial effort — code-named Dragonfly — is “exploratory,” and that Google is “not close to launching a search product in China.” What’s most interesting is that much of the outrage about the possibility seems to be coming from Google employees who have registered strong objections, rather than from outside.

For those who don’t know the history, Google began operating in China in 2000 and in 2005 the Microsoft tech leader Kai-Fu Lee was hired as the head of Google China. By 2009 Google controlled more than 36 percent of the market share and served hundreds of millions of mainland Chinese users.

It offered a truncated version of a search product, which included this disclaimer at the bottom of the page: “Some results have been withheld because of the government restrictions.” Google’s justification for being there was that bringing more information to the information-starved Chinese was a good thing.

“At least Chinese users knew what they were missing,” Nicole Wong, a former top Google lawyer, recently explained to me on my podcast.

The hope was that more information could help loosen the government’s stranglehold. That did not happen.

By 2010, Google was fed up with increasing repression and intrusions into its systems by Chinese-government-backed hackers. After a prolonged debate, Google withdrew to Hong Kong with a noncensored offering and was effectively out of the larger Chinese market. “Our objection is to those forces of totalitarianism,” Mr. Brin said at the time. He also wrote on his Google Plus page that the “primary threat by far to internet freedom is government filtering of political dissent.” This rejection of censorship was a bold stance, setting Google apart from other companies, like Apple, that had compromised with the Chinese government in order to do business there.

Fast forward to today, when Google is being falsely accused of censoring speech in the United States, when what it is really doing is mulling a return to censorship in China.

If this makes you pause, it should, and Washington politicians should take all their sanctimony and direct it at the China issue, which actually deserves some scrutiny. Perhaps that is the real reason Google avoided sending its current chief executive, Sundar Pichai, to the recent Senate hearings, so he could avoid explaining what it was thinking when it came China 2.0: Now With 100 Percent More Hypocrisy.

Google seems to have no problem climbing down off its high horse to grab the thing it needs in China.

Which is, simply put, more data.

That is what Ms. Wong and Dr. Lee, whom I also did a podcast interview with this week, suggested to me was the key impetus for the move.

In his new book, “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order,” Dr. Lee argues that advances in artificial intelligence — the future of computing — will be enjoyed only by those with the ability to essentially shove increasing amounts of data into the maw of the machine.

Right now, he notes, with China’s aggressive use of sensors and you-say-facial-recognition-I-say-surveillance, a population hooked on mobile in a much more significant way than here and consumers more willing to trade away their privacy for digital convenience, China’s internet companies have access to 10 to 15 times more data than American ones. Dr. Lee and others have called it a “data gap” that Google has to bridge, and soon, if it wants to remain competitive.

“You always want more data, as much as you can get,” Dr. Lee said. While the company is likely to again stress its liberating effect, he noted that even if it only got 20 percent of the market back, such a trove of information would be critical for Google.

Ms. Wong agrees, noting that doing otherwise might give China the advantage in the next computing era.

“To develop really strong A.I., you need a lot of data. Well, if you have an authoritarian government that says, ‘Hey, we’re now all doing facial recognition,’ you suddenly have a lot of data,” she said. “If you’re in the United States or Europe or whatever, you have to get consent, and that consent can be withdrawn. There are all kinds of hurdles to collecting the data, which means we’ll be slower. And I don’t have an issue with that except for the fact that China has the ability to employ technology that will simply be the dominant technology if they get there first.”

Other sources familiar with the situation say the calculus is less about data and more about just missing out on a lucrative business opportunity. Either way, these mercenary concerns are exactly what Google once seemed to argue against in China. Given the shift, I’d like the company to channel those often rowdy and raw all-hands meetings and transparently explain to its employees and users and regulators what it is willing to compromise in its return to China.

And I would especially like to hear from Mr. Brin, who is no longer engaged at Google on a daily basis. But his relative silence on the topic — especially when he often has something to say — is interesting.

It’s certainly a far cry from what he wrote with great emotion back in 2012 about leaving China:

“Regardless of how you feel about digital ecosystems or about Google, please do not take the free and open internet for granted from government intervention. To the extent that free flow of information threatens the powerful, those in power will seek to suppress it.”

Well said, Mr. Brin. Say it again.

Kara Swisher, editor at large for the technology news website Recode and producer of the Recode Decode podcast and Code Conference, is a contributing opinion writer.

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