Profit before people: Google in China

Photograph: Aly Song/Reuters
25th September 2018

Google's planned return to China is ominous, but technology can also help Tibet

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, was born in 1973 in the Soviet Union. He maintains that his experience of life under a totalitarian dictatorship formed his outlook on the world, as well as helping to guide the philosophy of the world’s most popular search engine.

Times have changed – and so has the company. Earlier this year, reports emerged from inside the Google that the internet giant was hatching plans to develop a new search engine in China that would comply with the government’s draconian censorship laws. The app, codenamed ‘Dragonfly’, would automatically identify and filter ‘blacklisted’ websites already blocked in China, as well as any search terms pertaining to human rights, Tibet, democracy and the Dalai Lama.

The plans would represent a major shift in Google’s policy. The company, whose code of conduct for years famously began “Don’t be evil”, withdrew from China in 2010 after a hacking scandal. In the following years Google had been adamant that it would not carry out any self-censorship. However, Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO since 2015, has sought to further grow the Silicon Valley giant and climbing China’s so-called “Great Firewall” appears to be a key part of this aggressive expansion plan.

the Dragonfly search engine will link users’ phone numbers to the search items on their smartphone app, thereby putting them at increased risk of government repression

There has been widespread opposition to the plan. In August, Free Tibet joined over 170 Tibet groups in expressing its opposition to ‘Dragonfly’ and the negative effects that it would have for Tibetans and other Chinese citizens who deserve free access to information.  

That same month, more than a thousand Google employees signed a letter highlighting their dissatisfaction with the proposals. In the letter, they demanded high-ranking Google executives review the firm’s ethics and transparency policies. Many Google employees are members of the Association of Computing Machinery, the code of ethics of which states that: “computing professionals should take action to avoid creating systems or technologies that disenfranchise or oppress people”, and “use their skills for the benefit of society.”

As reported by The Intercept, a number of Google employees have submitted their resignations since, including the senior research scientist Jack Pulson, who stated that it was his “ethical responsibility to resign in protest of the forfeiture of our public human rights commitments.”

The struggle to scrap this project is likely to rumble on, but it is clear that, even for a corporate behemoth like Google, the potential of cracking the Chinese market is too alluring and lucrative to resist. 

Recent examples of corporate entities capitulating to Chinese censorship – from website content through to advertising campaigns – include Cambridge University Press, Mercedes Benz and Marriott Hotels, as well as 40 airlines seeking a larger slice of the China air travel sector, including British Airways and Lufthansa.

The struggle to scrap this project is likely to rumble on, but it is clear that, even for a corporate behemoth like Google, the potential of cracking the Chinese market is too alluring and lucrative to resist. 

Growing numbers of businesses appear willing to turn a blind eye to China’s human rights abuses, and ‘Dragonfly’ has the potential to directly assist Beijing’s efforts to clamp down on freedom of expression and the ability of Tibetans to spread information. At the Chinese Communist Party National Congress last year, President Xi Jinping used his opening speech to lay out a vision of total party control, including even tighter controls over the internet.

The internal leaked documents reveal how the app-based search could prevent internet users inside China from accessing websites discussing topics of human rights, peaceful protests and others, blacklisted by the Chinese government. Moreover, as revealed by sources familiar with the project, the Dragonfly search engine will link users’ phone numbers to the search items on their smartphone app, thereby putting them at increased risk of government repression.  This is censorship accompanied by a sophisticated system of mass surveillance within Tibet itself. 

Security cameras in front of the portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square.
Security cameras in front of the portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square.

Despite a major backlash from its internal staff, journalists and human rights groups, Google has failed to publicly address the concerns over the project’s complicity in human rights violations. The Chinese Communist Party’s dream, in which the authorities in Beijing know everything that goes on in Tibet and the outside world knows nothing, may never be fully realised, but they are certainly doing their best.

Yet even in this apparently water-tight corner of the world activists are finding ways to ensure that a trickle of information continues to leak out. Chinese netizens, including their counterparts in Tibet, are finding ways to circumvent China’s extensive censorship and surveillance apparatus. Their writings, photos and videos, smuggled out of Tibet at great personal risk, help expose ongoing human rights abuses. It is this crucial information that counters the pervasive Chinese government narrative that asserts all is harmonious within its borders.  

Technology as means of resistence 

Despite having no physical access to Tibet, groups like Free Tibet are finding new ways to support Tibetans’ courageous work, sometimes by utilising technological advances themselves.  Recently Free Tibet was able to highlight the damage caused by forced demolitions at Larung Gar Buddhist Institute, using satellite technology to bypass the police checkpoints that had been set up around the community. 

Lhasa's Jokhang temple, one of the most sacred sites in Tibetan Buddhism, engulfed in flames.
Lhasa's Jokhang temple, one of the most sacred sites in Tibetan Buddhism, engulfed in flames.

More recently we captured the devastating impact of the fire at the Jokhang temple in February, defying the media blackout Beijing had imposed.

Much of the work that goes into ensuring that Tibet stays in focus is the result of hard work undertaken by Tibet’s 150,000-strong diaspora. Some experts now argue that this refugee community, who live in over 30 countries, are beginning to form a ‘digital country’ – one in which 69,000 people cast online votes for their government-in-exile in 2017 and who increasingly use the web to broadcast cultural gatherings, like the Kalachakra festival, to audiences across the globe.

Technology may help undemocratic regimes tighten their own hold on power, but it also allows those resisting repression to fight back.  

The use of technology to resist oppression can be seen around the world, even in its most remote corners. In parts of the majestic Amazon rainforests, indigenous activists have found an inventive way to keep tabs on illegal loggers. By attaching recycled mobile phones to giant trees across the junglescape campaigners can be alerted to the high-pitch sounds of chainsaws in operation, a simple solution to a growing threat.

From mobile phone technology hidden deep within tropical ecosystems through to silent satellites scoping the giant skies above Tibet, technology is helping to lift the veil on injustice worldwide.

Technology may help undemocratic regimes tighten their own hold on power, but it can also help those resisting repression to fight back.