Google is not the Benevolent Giant We Once thought
The World’s #1 Search Engine
When you think of a search engine, the very first thought that comes to mind is probably Google. I can’t think of anyone I know that says “Here, let me Bing that for you” or “Let me just hit up DuckDuckGo real quick for you.” Google is nearly ubiquitous in the tech world and has access to almost, if not, everything.
Evidently Google owns almost 90% of the world’s search engine market and receives an average of 63,000 individual queries every second. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is valued at $739 billion, just behind Microsoft and Amazon.
So, with all this information and market power, what does Google do with it? Apparently, not always the right thing, despite the Google Doctrine.
The Google Doctrine
The Google Doctrine is a phrase that can be traced back to Evgeny Morozov’s “The Net Delusion,” a much-needed cynical look at the future of the internet and its place in the world.
Morozov defines the Google Doctrine as “the enthusiastic belief in the liberating power of technology accompanied by the irresistible urge to enlist Silicon Valley start-ups in the global fight for freedom,” (Morozov, 2011). This basically just means that we are supposed to utilize the internet for the greater good in the global fight for freedom and access to information.
For example, in talking about the Green Movement during the civil war in Iran, “It only took a few clicks to be bombarded by links,” (Morozov, 2011). Iran’s Twitter Revolution, as it was called, displayed the Western world’s desire to utilize the internet as a liberator, an ideal place to perpetuate freedom (Morozov, 2011). This is a perfect example of the freedom of access to information being instrumental in organizing protests & encouraging fighting for civil rights & freedoms. Or so people were treating it as such.
As Morozov put it, this doctrine owes less to tweets and whatever else than it does to the sense of superiority we in the West feel following the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1989. This is not saying the fight for democracy is a bad thing- human rights are absolutely
For the most part, Google has remained faithful to this idealistic Western doctrine, but there have been discrepancies that cannot be ignored, some which truly beg the question of whether Google has sacrificed its supposedly deepest moral and ethical values. After Project Dragonfly, we have to recognize that it has.
Google, China, and Project Dragonfly
If you were not aware of the current political situation in China (and you would have to live under a rock to not know), the communist, authoritarian government heavily censors any and all media in the country. In 2010, Google announced its decision to pull out of China due to growing censorship demands and “mysterious cyber-attacks” on its intellectual property (Morozov, 2011). These mysterious cyber-attacks were actually from Beijing on the company’s source code in an attempt to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents. Google was hailed as a heroic company for its dedication to free speech and privacy (Powers & Jablonski, 2015). Google’s code of conduct and mission statement is quite simple, really. It’s literally “Don’t be evil,” (Powers & Jablonski, 2015). Which, the company stayed deeply dedicated to in the beginning.
I say “stayed” obviously implying this is all in the past and Google is not simply the benevolent internet deity we’ve come to know it as.
This is because it appears Google has been working with the Chinese government to assist in the creation of a heavily censored search engine. It was titled “Project Dragonfly” and was an application/search engine being tested to allow for proactive censorship of results relating to privacy, human rights, democracy… you get the idea. For a better understanding of the censorship being provided, queries mentioning human rights, democracy, and free speech to name a few.
This is an extremely problematic situation, not only because a tech and web giant like Google is cooperating with an authoritarian government to subvert internationally agreed-upon basic human rights like the access to free information, but because it means an organization highly respected for its dedication to freedom of information and expression has sacrificed these values for profit.
Lied about Quitting
From the beginning, Dragonfly was a secretive operation. Only a handful of teams throughout Google were on the project, and even fewer were told exactly what it was. It was pronounced “effectively ended” last December, but that might not be true.
Because of the internal conflict the project created, internal investigations have been ongoing within Google. Some employees have evidently uncovered ongoing work on the censored search engine. At least, as the previously link stated, it will be one or two years before the search engine is tried again, but possibly under a new name. But, nobody is certain due to lack of communication from upper management.
Once a “Champion of Free Speech…”
Clay Shirky, an internet guru, boldly stated that Google wasn’t just exporting a product or service, but freedom (Morozov, 2011). I bet he might feel a tad foolish now.
Google is a member of the GNI (Global Network Initiative), a group of internet giants dedicated to defending users’ rights, freedom of speech, and all things benevolent. Despite this, Google is very carefree with user privacy and data and has “made friends” with the U.S. Government (Morozov, 2011).
In 2010, Google released the mistake Google Buzz, which (without asking user permission) it automatically created a friend list based on who people emailed, revealing connections that may have been previously unknown. Google faced a class-action lawsuit for this, and probably added extensive information to the KGB’s data files (Morozov, 2011).
Aside from that, an ongoing problem we tend to not think about is how much information Google acquires about us daily and then uses for marketing purposes via targeted ads. That’s basically the very roundabout way of saying Google sells your data. As Morozov put it, Google runs the world’s most powerful advertising agency and marketing intelligence firm. And it’s all based on your search history.
Google is just not as benevolent as we thought (if we thought so in the first place). “Numerous examples of Google’s compliance with law enforcement agencies in both democratic and authoritarian countries suggests suggest that its desire for freedom of expression is certainly not driving its global business strategy,” (Powers & Jablonski, 2015).
This is not the first questionable action Google has made in accordance with a government. Right here in the United States, Google was working with the Pentagon by providing artificial intelligence to analyze drone footage and assist in targeting under the name Project Maven.
Just like now, this project was also cancelled due to internal conflict and dozens of resignations concerning the ethical violations this project committed. Google is still working with the DoD (Department of Defense) on other projects, and who knows how many more secret projects are underway.
This is more of a Bleak Look at Reality
The main purpose of this article was never to argue against this sort of cyber-utopianism which has permeated the minds of most of us in the Western world, but to raise questions about the benevolent possibilities of the internet. In doing the research, frankly it just made me sad that a company which most have looked up to has let us down so badly in this deliberate act of censorship and aiding in human rights violations.