A Google China Search Censorship App Is Not Neutral Free Open or Right

What business trade-offs must Alphabet-Google make to continue to grow revenues at its 25% annual rate -- i.e. +$27b in new revenues in 2018, +$35b more in 2019, and +$45b more in 2020 -- to become another company worth a trillion dollars?

Alphabet-Google has decided apparently, whatever it takes.    

Maybe no single Google action tells us more about where Alphabet-Google stands in its twentieth year as a company and what it believes it must do to succeed as it wants in the next twenty years, than “Google Plans to Launch a Censored Search Engine in China” – the main driver of Google’s apparent new China-first growth strategy revealed in The Intercept’s scoop this week.

That’s because it is hard to imagine how one Google service could go more against everything Google has publicly promised and stood for as a company, or more deform and deface the authenticity of the many positive principles undergirding Google’s world-leading, global brand identity.

Consider the questions that this Google China-first growth strategy surfaces.

Search bias the new normal? Customizing Google’s search engine into a comprehensive, one-sided Android Chinese censorship app, for ~800m Chinese Internet users shows what Google can do to a large segment of the world’s Internet users and apparently what Google is willing to do if the price is right.

It begs the question of which customized version of Google Search is anyone getting now? And is it programmed to be objective, or biased to promote one political view over another?

If Google is mercenary enough to secretly aid, abet, and enable Chinese totalitarian censorship at Google-ian-scale, why wouldn’t they be willing to customize bias of their search algorithm for other powerful leaders, countries, industries, groups, etc. if the price or benefit is right?

Google is stepping out onto a slope that is about as slippery as a slope can get.   

Mission corruption? Google’s longstanding “mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Google’s China-first growth mission would be the opposite, to collude with the Chinese Government to make sure any independent political information is universally not accessible or useful to Chinese citizens.

Doing the wrong thing? Google’s longtime motto has been “don’t be evil.” Today it supposedly is “do the right thing.”

Ask any independent ethicist if Google volunteering to be a general contractor for China perfecting the total-automation of oppression of the world’s most populous country is “doing the right thing.”

Abandoning freedom of speech? Google has long-touted protection of freedom of speech as its highest and most inviolate principles.

How can Google justify to its employees, users, and civil society allies -- that designing and operating one of the biggest centralized censorship applications in world history, and that perfecting the eradication of free speech in a country of 1.4b people -- somehow squares with Google’s claimed deeply-held belief in “universal” freedom of speech?  

Abandoning a free and open Internet? In 2008, Google’s Public Policy Blog defended the free and open Internet: “The fight to keep the Internet free and open is, at its heart, motivated by a keen vision of how the world ought to be -- interconnected by open communications networks on which free expression, creativity, community, culture, commerce, politics, innovation, and competition thrive.”

How can Google say that preventing censorship, and ensuring Internet users have access to the information and apps of their choice are non-negotiable principles in the rest of the world, while at the same time planning to grow and profit from total-censorship in the world’ largest non-free, and closed Intranet, and facilitating the “splinternet” dynamic that Google has always fiercely opposed?

Apparently, Google appreciates what others do not, that most of the world’s countries are autocratic and are on path to follow China’s Internet censorship lead.

If Google wants to maintain its world-leading Metcalfe’s Law network effects, growth, influence and global power, it apparently has concluded that it increasingly needs to secretly accommodate autocratic regimes with their own customized national Google Search censorship apps.  

Since China and Russia have been steadily gaining out-sized influence in the multi-stakeholder Internet governance process, Google, as the lone Internet superpower, apparently is angling for some sort of Internet détente with China given its apparent new China-first growth strategy.       

Abandoning net neutrality principles? How can Google bankroll the global network neutrality movement since 2006 that opposes any blocking or throttling of websites or Internet discrimination of any type, but in China act as if it is no violation of the network neutrality principle when Google’s Internet service provider “pipe” into China enables and perfects the Chinese Government’s network capability to mass block and discriminate against the most freedom-based websites in the world?

It is telling this week that Senator Wyden in a public hearing, said: “I want to be clear, as the author of Section 230, [U.S. immunity from liability for censorship] the days when these pipes are considered neutral are over.”

One last question, if Google is willing to subject itself to maximal regulation in China for the obvious purposes of harming Chinese Internet users’ accessibility to useful information, why does Google staunchly oppose even minimal regulation of U.S. Internet platforms for the purposes of protecting American Internet users?  The hypocrisy is legion.

In sum, there is nothing neutral, free, open, or right in what Google evidently is planning and preparing to do in China by designing and operating a Chinese Android censorship app to tighten totalitarian control of the Chinese people.

It will be telling if Alphabet-Google decides to go through with its apparent “China-First” business growth strategy, that is the antithesis of everything Google has publicly promised and claimed is foundational to its world-leading global brand identity.

It will also be telling to learn in the weeks and months ahead what Congress thinks of Google’s apparent mercenary business strategy of forging multiple close strategic partnerships with China that involve the sharing and customization of its world-leading, search, news, artificial intelligence, and mobile messenger technological capabilities with China and Huawei, all while Google is pulling back on its cooperation with the U.S. Department of Defense.

Forewarned is forearmed.   


Scott Cleland served as Deputy U.S. Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy in the George H. W. Bush Administration. He is President of Precursor LLC, an internetization consultancy specializing in how the Internet affects competition, markets, the economy, and policy, for Fortune 500 companies, some of which are Internet platform competitors. He is also Chairman of NetCompetition, a pro-competition e-forum supported by broadband interests. Cleland has testified seven times before the Senate and House Antitrust Subcommittees on antitrust matters. Overall, eight different congressional subcommittees have sought his expert testimony a total of sixteen times. When he served as an investment analyst, Institutional Investor twice ranked him the #1 independent analyst in communications. He is also author of “Search & Destroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google Inc.”