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Walled Gardens: Google’s Misstep Highlights Threats to Internet Freedom

On Tuesday, December 11th, 2018, Google CEO Sundar Pichai found himself testifying in front of the House Judiciary Committee. Subjects discussed ranged from artificial intelligence to political bias to manipulation of search results. Project DragonFly was also on the table, though Pichai was quick to dismiss the endeavor. He told the committee that Google has no current plans to launch a censored search tool in China. According to Pichai, the Project DragonFly search engine was more of a thought experiment on what a Chinese Google search would look like and not a product that would actually go to market. This narrative runs counter to the story The Intercept broke in August. In documents leaked to The Intercept, it is clear that Google did intend to launch a censored search engine in China as soon as possible. The company seems to have backed off following uproar over Pichai’s testimony, so the project does indeed seem to be nixed in the short term. It is certainly possible Google would return to the initiative within the next five to ten years.

Image courtesy of Pixabay, © 2014.

In theory, the internet is a democratic tool that facilitates the free flow of information across borders and allows for freedom of expression and opinion. The United Nations deemed access to the internet a universal human right for this reason. If Google capitulates to China’s demands to silo and control the flow of information within its borders, it will be a major blow–one the world may not be able to overcome if other regimes like Iran, Egypt, and Uganda feel empowered to follow suit and seize more control within their own borders. Once individual regimes start building walls in one of the largest digital platforms in the world (3.5 billion searches are performed each day), the digital space would no longer be an open arena for citizens all over the world to talk, share ideas, and learn. Instead, it would highlight the many ways in which the internet can be used to support surveillance, censorship, and repression.

Google has long refused to abide by the Chinese government’s censorship restrictions. As a result, the company does not operate in China. It seems that after years of being shut out of a large, potentially lucrative market and watching homegrown Chinese tech companies like Baidu, Sina, and AliBaba flourish, Google has grown tired of being pushed to the sidelines. They are now willing to work with the Chinese government, or at least to consider it. The tech giant reportedly began working on the DragonFly search engine in the spring of 2017. The custom search engine would prohibit Chinese users from accessing anything currently blocked by the Great Firewall. Search results that link to banned websites would be removed from the results page. Searches based around highly sensitive keywords will display no results at all. This would make the search engine an ideal tool for censorship and thought control. Dissident ideas are nearly impossible to form without the language to describe them or the context to support them.

The Intercept’s Project Dragonfly revelation created an immediate outcry when published. Numerous staff members resigned, including a Senior Research Scientist; Amnesty International organized protests at Google campuses around the world; and scathing editorials poured in from a variety of news sources. Censorship was not the only concern brought up during this backlash. There is also the issue of acquiescence to China’s data privacy and surveillance laws. Under Chinese regulations, the government would be able to access users’ search records, a power that can be used to track the spread of ideas and potentially root out dissidents and journalists. If the search records are used to identify and arrest activists who have searched for terms like “Tiananmen Square,” “peaceful demonstration,” or “human rights,” launching a China-approved search engine could eventually make Google complicit in human rights abuses.

China is just one of many countries where the internet does not meet the ideal of a free and open tool for knowledge and communication. According to Freedom Houses’ annual Freedom on the Net survey, China scored an 88, or “not free,” due to limits on content and violations of users’ rights. Neighbors Russia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam all scored between 65 and 75, also “not free.” African nations Egypt, South Sudan, and Ethiopia are in a similar range, along with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela, among others. In total, 20 of the 66 markets included in the report scored “not free,” and another 30 scored only “partly free,” a slight increase over 2017. Google is active in almost all of these markets. So are Facebook, Twitter, YouTube (owned by Google), Bing, and Yahoo. China is one of the largest and most valuable markets in the world for a tech company, which makes it no surprise that Google would eventually think about compromising values in order to gain entry. Once Google makes it clear that they are willing to make an exception to their policies, there is nothing that would stop other regimes from asking for similar compromises from the search engine or from the other major tech players.





Some other repressive regimes are already getting bolder in their willingness to manipulate technology that was, in theory, developed to facilitate freedom of expression and opinion. In May, the Ugandan government implemented a daily tax on Facebook, WhatsApp, and Skype, arguing that the platforms were being used to spread malicious gossip. Human rights advocates had a different view: the tax was a way to crack down on freedom of speech, as the platforms were being used to publish content and organize groups. Previously, Uganda had experimented with blocking access to social media sites during elections. Cambodia, Turkey, Mali, and others have used similar tactics. Now that Google seems to be backing away from their “don’t be evil” motto, they could have more leverage when seeking concessions from the search engine to bolster their authority.

Luckily, the project is sidelined for now. Chinese users will have to survive without Google for the foreseeable future, as they have for the last eight years. They still have Baidu for normal search needs, and VPNs and secure browsers like Tor for searches that are potentially more questionable. Project Dragonfly has exposed a crack in the utopian ideal that access to the internet is a universal human right that facilitates freedom of expression, opinion, and assembly. There are already many places where internet access does not align with this ideal that many often take for granted. In the future there may be more, if Google’s experiment is symptomatic of a larger trend.



Michelle Bovée

Michelle Bovee is a Market Intelligence manager at MAGNA Global, where she focuses on global advertising revenues and media cost trends, particularly in Western and Northern Europe. She graduated from the London School of Economics with a Master's degree in International Relations in 2013 and is currently living in New York City. You can connect with her on Twitter @boveemc.

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