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BIPP: Shedding light to the shadow of censorship: Google plans to return Chinese market with censored app 8 years later

Yiwei Wang, Staff Writer

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To the surprise of many, Google plans on re-entering the Chinese market through developing a censored version of its search service, eight years after being deemed illegal by the Chinese government. The project coded under “Dragonfly” has been underway since the spring of 2017 and according to Reuters, “Progress on the project picked up after a December meeting between Google’s Chief Executive Sundar Pichai and a top Chinese government official.” In the censored version of Google, the results will be filtered through certain key search items, such as democracy, religion, and peaceful protest. In the era of rising populism around the world, Google’s decision on returning to China invites criticism from international human rights organizations who argue that Google is supporting the repression of freedom of speech in China. Many people scratch their heads and wonder why Google, whose motto was “Don’t be evil,” makes such a move now.

In an effort to address some of the concerns related to Google’s relaunch, John L. Hennessy, the president of Alphabet Inc. (which owns Google), shared his view on the decision of returning to China in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “The question to ask yourself is, are the Chinese people better off with a limited version of Google, or are they better off with no access at all? And that’s not so clear to me,” Hennessy said. In his view, Google is not defying their core values by introducing a limited service in China because the total benefits for Chinese consumers to have Google’s limited service will outweigh the cost of compliance with Chinese cyber security laws. Under such utilitarian thinking, a change in viewing ethics from when the company left China, Google is on track to bring more equality in information access to the second largest country in the world in terms of nominal GDP. Google has evolved over the years in recognizing the need to deal with business in societies that have drastically different attitudes toward the internet.

“There’s a shifting set of grounds of how you think about that problem, and how you think about the issue of censorship. The truth is, there are forms of censorship virtually everywhere around the world,” Hennessy said. Therefore, in order to “Do the right thing,” which is Google’s new motto since 2015, it requires a new type of thinking which delivers maximum benefits to consumers across different culture that value internet differently.

 

However, the idea of “Do the right thing” is conceptually inconclusive, because doing the right thing can mean something completely different to different groups of people. To consumers in China, is it right to have a censored version of Google which may result in aggravating the information disparity in Chinese society even further? Admittedly, more access to information is good for the public in general. However, if the source of the information is rigorously screened and filtered by the government’s cyber security agency, then Google is more of an equalizer for information access. In this case, is doing the right thing for the government morally justifiable? A handful of examples can be listed to show how the company can help the government resolve the poverty crisis and other critical issues with its unmatched cloud computing technology, and well-run big data management. At the same time, how will this type of corporate and government partnership impact individual lives and rights if the social problems they deal with grow in complexity? As for the company itself, does “Do the right thing” simply mean tapping into a relatively restricted market and profiting from it in any way possible? Or should it equip itself with set of clear ethical codes to avoid conflicts of interest while serving both the government and consumer?

In short, we have seen the U.S. political landscapes change significantly in the past few years, especially regarding the government and its media relations. At the same time, tech giants such as Google and Facebook are carefully re-balancing their core values and business missions as they maneuver through the shadows of  freedom of expression and search for the proper answer to the profound question, “What is the right thing to do?”

 

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BIPP: Shedding light to the shadow of censorship: Google plans to return Chinese market with censored app 8 years later