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Google CEO Faces DOD Scrutiny Over Project Dragonfly, Secret China Search Engine

Sundar Pichai, CEO, Google (Photo by Maurizio Pesce from Milan, Italy)
Sundar Pichai, CEO, Google (Photo by Maurizio Pesce from Milan, Italy)

Google executives are working with China to produce a version of its search engine that will censor topics deemed unsuitable by the Chinese government.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai is meeting with General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, over concerns about the company’s involvement with China. General Dunford expressed discontent over an artificial intelligence lab Google opened in Beijing in 2017, saying, “The work that Google is doing in China is indirectly benefiting the Chinese military.”

Controversy in China

Google has drawn controversy over reports it has been helping China develop a censored version of its search engine, code-named Project Dragonfly. Dragonfly would prevent citizens from accessing information about human rights, democracy and peaceful protests, among other topics the Chinese government deems unsuitable. The revelations led to protests, resignations and letters from employees imploring Google’s leadership to cease its work on Dragonfly.

On March 27, Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri), a frequent critic of big tech, called for Pichai to publicly address concerns regarding his business partnership with China, saying:

“It is worth asking what Google stands to gain from partnering with a country that routinely violates basic human liberties, including maintaining detention facilities for nearly a million Uyghur Muslims, banning freedom of speech and the press, and repressing its Christian, Tibetan Buddhist and other religious communities.”

After the public outcry over Dragonfly, Google executives moved engineers away from the project, claiming plans to launch it had been canceled. But according to a March 27, 2019 report from The Intercept, an exclusive group of Google executives is still conducting secret “performance reviews” of the censored search engine. The report says fewer than a dozen top employees at the tech giant have access to the classified reviews.

Two Versions of the Internet Coming

Last September, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt predicted the internet will likely “bifurcate” in coming years, with an open U.S.-led version and a censored Chinese-led version. According to Schmidt, the scale of wealth being created in China is “phenomenal,” and with China’s internet service being a greater percentage of GDP than the U.S.’s, the power they could wield is formidable. After being questioned by economist Tyler Cowen, Schmidt elaborated on his prediction:

“If you think of China as like ‘Oh yeah, they’re good with the Internet,’ you’re missing the point. Globalization means that they get to play too. I think you’re going to see fantastic leadership in products and services from China. There’s a real danger that along with those products and services comes a different leadership regime from government, with censorship, controls, etc. Look at the way BRI (the Belt and Road Initiative) works… it’s perfectly possible those countries will begin to take on the infrastructure that China has with some loss of freedom.”

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a colossal Chinese initiative focused on expanding the country’s strategic influence with huge infrastructure projects across Asia, Africa and Europe. In addition to expanding land and maritime trade networks, the BRI seeks to facilitate digital trade. It is through these networks the “Chinese-led” version of the internet Schmidt refers to could gain international influence.

According to leaked documents provided by The Intercept, Dragonfly would allow China’s Communist Party to surveil people’s searches while blocking thousands of phrases, such as “student protest” and “Nobel Prize.” Google previously worked with China from 2006 to 2010, before former CEO Sergey Brin pulled the company’s operations from the country over its censorship policies. Having secretly reversed Brin’s decision once already, it is imperative for Google executives to be transparent about their operations with China and preserve the integrity of the internet.

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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