Juha Saarinen: Ethical fault lines are showing at Google


COMMENT:

The powerful indexer of the internet, Google, has cruised along remarkably quietly, steering clear of major controversies while building a global information-broking empire.

That’s changing, however, as Google staffers are increasingly up in arms over the search and advertising giant ditching ethical principles in pursuit of dubious business deals.

In May this year, 4000 employees wrote to Google management to protest against the company’s involvement in Project Maven, which would use cloud-based artificial intelligence to help the United States build surveillance drones that can see and make decisions autonomously.

Maybe that wouldn’t have resulted in Terminator-style killer drones roaming the planet, but when that many bright and talented Google employees — the company likes to hire the best of the best — sounded the warning, it was worth paying attention to.

At the time, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai and company management apparently sat down to work out some ethical guidelines for their AI division.

Pichai and Co didn’t get far before stepping into another ethical mess right at the core of Google, namely internet search.

Google has long wanted to re-enter the enormous Chinese market which it pulled out of in 2010 after being attacked by Government hackers who stole intellectual property and went after other American companies as well.

The hacks happened despite Google censoring search results, and at the time there was a “goodonya” chorus around the world for what looked like a principled decision.

Not happy with Google, the Chinese government is still blocking Big G online properties like Gmail and anything else from the Western side of the internet that carry the unpleasant whiff of free speech and political freedoms. Doing business in China can be tough like that.

In that situation, doing the right thing would seem to be not to get into bed again with a totalitarian regime, one which has spent the last few years perfecting its online censorship and surveillance strategies to brutally crack down on dissidents.

Google instead tried to charm the Chinese with a new and improved censored search engine for its Android mobile operating system.

You can sort of see why Google did that, as Android is a cornerstone of its mobile business, and it’s the operating system of choice for Chinese device makers.

But, Project Dragonfly, as the censored search engine trial was called, could apparently link enervating queries (like “the Communist Party of China is corrupt”) with people’s phone numbers.

It’s certainly an innovative way to use location services, but who at Google thought it’d be a good idea to add a feature that would auto-shop Android users to China’s Ministry of State Security?

To be fair, plenty of Western companies drooling at the giant Chinese market are happy to quietly do as they’re told in order to “respect the jurisdiction of the country we’re operating in”.

Sometimes the censorship has ridiculous consequences, like when Apple complied with mainland China’s demands to not display the Taiwanese flag emoji which created a bug that crashed apps on iPhones.

However, China is deadly serious about censorship, surveillance and suppressing dissidence.

We should be grateful for Google staffers acting as an ethical handbrake on management’s Chinese ambitions and at the same time be concerned that it doesn’t happen more often in other companies.

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