Google Employee Says Google Violates International Law. Well, Yeah.

Google’s former head of free expression issues in Asia has slammed the internet giant’s plan to launch a censored search engine in China, calling it a”stupid move” that would violate widely held human rights principles.

As The Intercept first reported last week, Google has been quietly developing a search platform for China that would remove content that China’s authoritarian government views as sensitive, such as information about political opponents, free speech, democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest. It would “blacklist sensitive queries” so that “no results will be shown” at all when people enter certain words or phrases, according to internal Google documents.

Lokman Tsui, Google’s head of free expression for Asia and the Pacific between 2011 and 2014, read the leaked censorship plans and said he was disturbed by the details. “This is just a really bad idea, a stupid, stupid move,” he told The Intercept in an interview. I feel compelled to speak out and say that this is not right.”

Google previously launched a censored search engine in China in 2006, but pulled the service out of the country in 2010, citing Chinese government efforts to limit free speech, block websites, and hack Google’s computer systems. Tsui said the situation since 2010 has worsened, with new national security and cybersecurity laws resulting in more government censorship and surveillance of China’s internet.

“In these past few years things have been deteriorating so badly in China – you cannot be there without compromising yourself,” Tsui said. Google launching a censored search engine in the country “would be a moral victory for Beijing,” he added. “Beijing has nothing to lose. So if Google wants to go back, it would be under the terms and conditions that Beijing would lay out for them. I can’t see how Google would be able to negotiate any kind of a deal that would be positive. I can’t see a way to operate Google search in China without violating widely held international human rights standards.”

“I can’t see a way to operate Google search in China without violating widely held international human rights standards.”

Tsui is now an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he teaches students at the School of Journalism and Communication. He still follows human rights issues in China closely and has watched as Google has upped its presence in the country in recent years. Under the leadership of its current CEO Sundar Pichai, Google has launched translate and file management apps in China. The company has also opened an artificial intelligence research center in Beijing, and invested $550 million in the online Chinese retailer

These were baby steps, however, in comparison to the planned return of the search engine, which would be a massive strategic move for Google, with broad political implications. When Google pulled its search engine out of the country in 2010, it was a major rebuke to the Chinese government and its policies. Returning to China and embracing the censorship would send the opposite message, according to Tsui.

“Google made a grand statement in 2010. The message was that ‘We care about human rights and we care about free expression, we are the champions of this, we have responsibility, we don’t want to self-censor any more,’” said Tsui. “So for Google to then go back with search — not just any product, but with search — would be giving a green light to every other company. Search has massive symbolic value. It is Google’s crown jewel. It is what makes Google, Google. The core of the company’s identity and its value is the search engine.”

Only a few hundred of Google’s 88,000 employees had been briefed about the censorship project — which was code-named Dragonfly — prior to the revelations last week. After the news broke, Google employees in the company’s offices across the world were left angry and confused. Meanwhile, the internet giant’s leadership has stayed silent, refusing to address staff concerns. Publicly, Google has said simply that it will not discuss “speculation about future plans.” (The company’s press office did not respond to a request for comment on this story.)

Tsui will not be surprised if people quit Google over the China plans because, he said, many employees at the company believe in its values. The internet giant’s stated central mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The company’s informal motto is “don’t be evil.” Google has since its early years maintained a list of “10 things” that represent foundational values for the company. One of these values is: “You can make money without doing evil.” Another is: “Democracy on the web works.”

“What makes Google such a great company is that the people who work there are not just working there for the money,” Tsui said. “You can be cynical about that … [but] many of the people who work there genuinely care about the mission of Google. So Google will lose the hearts and minds of people working for it [because of the China censorship]. And it is losing its own identity. If you are the leader [of Google], that should really concern you.”

Google will lose the hearts and minds of people working for it. And it is losing its own identity.”

A bipartisan group of six U.S. senators has raised concerns about Google’s plans, as have human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights in China, Reporters Without Borders, and Access Now. Several of these groups have commented that Google’s plan raises more issues than just censorship. In order to launch its search platform in the country, Google would be legally forced to locate data centers and servers on the Chinese mainland. Chinese authorities have in the past used their powers to monitor the communications of activists and journalists – arresting them if they have said anything critical about the government.

“The current legal environment in China makes it difficult, if not impossible, to operate in a way that would allow Google to protect its users,” said Tsui. “The government would have the legal authority to just seize the data. If it wanted to play hardball, it could raid data centers and grab hard drives. That is the risk.”

Google’s plan for the search platform is to launch it through an app accessible to users of Android smartphones and tablets. Researchers estimate that more than 95 percent of people accessing the internet in China use mobile devices to go online, and Android is by far the most popular mobile operating system in the country, with an 80 percent market share.

Tsui said the app itself could pose more risks from a privacy standpoint than would a desktop version of Google search, because the app may be able to collect other data on people’s devices, such as location data or call records. It wouldn’t be that difficult for the app to keep track of who is searching for what, where, at what time,” he said.

When Tsui joined Google, the political environment was very different. He recalls the period during and immediately following the Arab Spring uprisings that spread across the Middle East and North Africa. There was a lot of enthusiasm then for the transformative potential of the internet as a force for good — a force that could crush dictatorships and create democracies.

But the atmosphere changed, and the enthusiasm faded. Tsui said he grew tired of his work at Google, where he said he felt like a “politician” or “a character in Game of Thrones.” He left the company in 2014, and he said Google no longer employs anyone with the title he once had, as head of free expression for Asia and the Pacific.

Freedom of speech is just not a winning issue anymore,” said Tsui. “Now, all we are concerned about is fake news, election interference, hate speech. These are also free expression issues. But free expression is seen as a losing issue at this point all we care about is the negative part. The internet platforms are no longer seen as the good guys; they are increasingly seen as the bad guys. And free expression is disappearing from the companies as a result.”

27 Replies to “Google Employee Says Google Violates International Law. Well, Yeah.”

  1. While I respect Sekani’s well-reasoned defense of Google Maps, and I’m sure he’s right and I’m wrong, I continue to prefer Waze for these reasons.1. In my experience (not based on purported estimates) Waze has picked better routes that get me where I’m going faster than the routes Google Maps has picked for me. This is of course subject to random chance. Maybe I just get unlucky with Google Maps.2. Waze has several times automatically adjusted my route on the way and very obviously saved me time that would have otherwise left me stuck. I’ve heard Google Maps has the capability of doing this too but I’ve never been lucky enough to see it happen in real life.If you’re a professional driver like Sekani, a lot of the features of Google Maps that he praises are going to WELL counterbalance these two things. But these two points and the one Sekani mentioned about ease of instruction (knowing the right street names etc.) are the reasons that I stubbornly stick with Waze.

  2. I have read the response from Jade. I have all of my posts from real bonafide customers being removed. they are being posted one at at time immeadiately after the service. One stayed up for 3 weeks and then the other day disappeared. I can get no one from Google to tell me what is going on other than to give me the policy word for word from the Google help pages about their policy.At this point I am ready to give up and ask my customers to avoid Google and go to Yelp. it is not worth all of the brain damage. does anyone at Google care enough to help? or should I just move on?

  3. @AlWhile it is understandable that this might occur, it is a machine after all, there are good reasons to critique Google in this situation.Critique is not hate. If you knew me you would know that I really do want Google to do better and be better. You may not like my tone but at my age I have earned the privilege of being cranky once in a while. While a user could dig deeper and ferret out the error, that is very unlikely to happen. The review snippet is showing on the front page of Google for a brand search. That would require a second click to analyze all of the reviews, read through them and find the one that this references.Google in presenting this information on the front page for a business is attempting to be accurate and has a responsibility to do so. They are not perfect so to their credit they have added support staff to fix these sorts of issues. The answer from support was from a human. And proves that humans can be even dumber than a machine. In this case, it should have been obvious to them that the machine had in fact not been able to parse this double negative well and should have taken the initiative to act.Dan is more persistent than most, he was lucky in that he had access to the contact form and was able after the above stupid response to get Google to reconsider. Most small businesses do not have that luxury. If Google is going to profit by using SMB data and the business is to develop ads and marketing around that effort, then Google should take the time to fix these sorts of errors in a timely fashion with no bull shit.

  4. I have been upset because after looking thru many history forums I thought all hope was lost but I am glad to know there are still decent people who care about the true past not taught in skools. Have you noticed that in political or history forums if anybody so much as criticize a Liberal like point out the truth about Bill Clinton they are branded a *Right Wing conspiracy nut* and sometimes banned?There is a site called Alternate and it is FULL of pro Nazi propaganda even though they claim genocide is wrong.

  5. Ultimately, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Google’s founders could never have known that their erstwhile motto “do no evil” was bound to fail because it conflicts with a goal of achieving monopolistic power. Perhaps that’s why they dropped the motto in 2015. Some fascinating insights and views in this post.

  6. I agree, the people in the doodles are not American. They are, I suppose, created to celebrate all athletes, but seem to leave out the Americans. We have the most colorful group of athletes. This is what makes America unique – except for our uniforms, we don’t all match! The one above looks dark Mexican, down to his Speedy Gonzales mustache. It’s strange that they can stylize and stereotype other countries, but not USA. I would like to see them try to draw a white Chinese athlete, or a black Iranian and then watch the outrage!

  7. @ALCertainly Google has sent much more business to local businesses than they have turned away. That doesn’t change their responsibility to get it right.As far as I can tell a very, very small percentage of folks ever leave Google’s main page and head into Plus. I can’t imagine (although I might be wrong) that review exploration is much higher.

  8. 9th admendment The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.interpret (a word or action) in a particular way:“his words could hardly be construed as an apology”

  9. I’m digging the specific site and url for the cause. Cernovich’s McMasterLeaks was great too. Glad to see the New Right is getting more organized and efficient everyday.#MarchOnGoogle #FireMcMasterShameless Plugs: everyone. For your chance to win a free brand new copy of Trump: Art of the Deal

  10. @mike – it’s all good man, I like your often snide comments – it’s one reason I enjoy your blog.And we’ll have to agree to disagree on users and seeing review snippets. i still think people know intent even in a poorly parsed snippet. Plus, sometimes that negative could stimulate a further click (cuz ppl like negatives) and get them actually dig into the reviews further – which would be good for the biz.Lastly, Google profiting off SMB data – that can be looked at in a couple ways as well. Those SMBs wouldn’t have near the access to traffic they do if it wasn’t for Google being generous. The local cards (as large as they are now) used to be just ad space. Google literally gave up revenue in order to display larger, more robust cards for the betterment of the user experience (and in turn betterment of the small business). I don’t know many large companies that would do that.AL

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