Google CEO’s China argument doesn’t hold water

There’s a new interview with Google CEO Sundar Pichai in The New York Times, in which he talks about his upbringing in Chennai, India—where he and his siblings all slept on the floor, and he dreamed of one day having a refrigerator—and the challenges he faces as the chief executive officer of one of the internet’s most powerful companies. Among other things, Pichai says he thinks society is overly optimistic about technology but also hypercritical of it. “I think we’re both over-reliant on technology as a way to solve things [and] over-indexing on technology as a source of all problems too,” he says.

Many people might agree with that statement, but there’s one section of the Pichai interview that is a little harder to swallow: When asked to comment on reports that Google is working on a censored version of its search engine for use in China, something that has caused at least a few Google employees to actually quit working for the web giant, Pichai seems to downplay the criticism. He says he isn’t even sure that the search product is even a priority for the company, and adds:

One of the things that’s not well understood, I think, is that we operate in many countries where there is censorship. When we follow “right to be forgotten” laws, we are censoring search results because we’re complying with the law. I’m committed to serving users in China. Whatever form it takes, I actually don’t know the answer.

There is definitely some truth to this point: Google, like every other company, has to obey the laws of the countries in which it operates. So if you’re a digital or social platform, you can’t allow people to find or spread neo-Nazi content in Germany, because that kind of sentiment is against the law. And if you want to do business in Turkey, you have to be aware that you can be charged with a crime for disparaging Turkey and/or its founder, and that this law can be used to shut down your operations (as it has in the case of YouTube). In the EU, the “right to be forgotten” allows individuals to argue that search results containing disparaging information about them should be removed.

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But acceding to Chinese demands for widespread censorship and digital surveillance of its citizens is not the same as complying with the right to be forgotten. When Google removes search results because of the latter, it is only after a specific complaint is made by an individual concerning information related to them, and Google can refuse (at which point the person involved can sue in an attempt to force Google to do it).

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When it comes to Chinese censorship, the government removes whatever it wishes, whenever it wishes, and there is no official trace or record of it ever existing. It goes down “the memory hole,” as George Orwell called it. According to multiple reports, the censored search Google is said to be working on—code-named Dragonfly—would blacklist a wide range of banned terms, and would represent a reversal of the company’s previous attitude on China. Google initially had a Chinese version of its search engine, but shut it down and left the country in 2010, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin said he felt uncomfortable with Chinese censorship, in part because he grew up in the former Soviet Union.

Censorship is only part of the problem. There’s also the kind of surveillance that Google would be enabling. If it were treated like most other Chinese digital services such as WeChat (and there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t be), Google would have to provide all of the search data and any information on its users. That would allow the government to track and accumulate data on any dissidents searching for forbidden terms, like “human rights,” or “Tiananmen Square.” According to a report from The Intercept, the search engine app Google is working on would tie searches to an individual’s cellphone number.

If Sundar Pichai wants to argue that Google needs to be in China for economic or financial reasons, or even that providing censored search is better than nothing, he is of course free to do that. But don’t ask us to buy the argument that working hand in hand with the Chinese government to track its own citizens is somehow ethically the same as removing a few search results after a public court case.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said “right to be forgotten” requests involve a public hearing, but they only do so if Google denies a request and the user in question sues to try to force them to comply.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.