Written by Min Jiang.

Without virtue, the most complete collection of talents is worthless. – Chinese Proverb

2018: #Dragonfly

Dragonfly is the code name for Google’s secret project – a censored mobile search app custom-made for the Chinese market that would blacklist and filter topics including human rights, democracy, religion and peaceful protests. When reporter Ryan Gallagher broke the story on The Intercept based on internal Google documents leaked by whistleblowers on August 1, 2018, the app was ready to be launched, waiting only for the green light from the Chinese government, according to Gallagher.

Since then, Google has been engulfed in a public opinion storm, facing censures and questions from journalists, human rights groups, lawmakers, the public as well as its own employees. By August 16th, 1,400 Google employees signed a letter confronting management about the ethical implications of Dragonfly, demanding greater transparency, calling for structural changes within the company. At the firm’s August 17th meeting, CEO Sundar Pichai admitted Dragonfly had been “in an exploration stage for quite a while now” but said Google was “not close to launching a search product in China,” contrary to what Google’s internal documents showed. Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin, shockingly, asserted that he didn’t know of the project’s existence until TheInterceptstory. On August 28th, 14 human rights organizations published an open letter asking Google to cancel its China censorship plan. A month after the world learned about Dragonfly, Google still refuses to comment.

2010: “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”

Things were a little different eight years ago. When Google decided to stop censoring after being in China for four years and moved its China search operations to Hong Kong, a free speech zone, in 2010, the company was widely hailed as the tech hero who lived up to its motto “Don’t be evil.” Mr Brin, born in the Soviet Union himself and an immigrant to the U.S., denounced totalitarianism: “In some aspects of [government] policy, particularly with respect to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see some earmarks of totalitarianism.”

The distaste for censorship and oppression was real. So were fears of cyber-attacks and hacking of human rights activists’ Gmail accounts. Google feared compromising itself both morally and technologically. Now, eight years later, the same moral dilemma remains. How can Google return to China with Dragonfly without violating “widely accepted principles of international law and human rights” as outlined in the company’s own artificial intelligence ethical principles? Is Google prepared to do what Yahoo! did in 2005 – turning over information to state security that led to the jailing of journalist Shi Tao for 10 years – given the government’s data localization requirement? Will Google truly serve Chinese users and earn the trust of the public globally by being an instrument of state propaganda and information suppression? How can Google ask its employees to “Do the right thing” when it repeatedly (previously over Project Maven to build warfare technology for the Pentagon) disappoints rather than inspires its employees? Dragonfly is a bad idea to begin with and should be abandoned now.

Faustian Bargain, Again

Google’s management surely understands one can’t touch pitch without being muddied. Yet, the company’s top leaders were ready to strike a Faustian Bargain again with the Chinese state. There is no denying that China is strategically important. The world’s 2ndlargest economy now has 772 million Internet users, 1/5 of the world’s total. It is also the world’s largest mobile market, with 664 million mobile Internet users. Moreover, the Chinese government invests heavily in science and technology. At roughly $233 billion USD, its investment accounts for 20% of the global R&D spending. This input has influenced the growth of science and engineering talents and scientific publications. China now produces more science and engineering students than anywhere else in the world. In 2018, China surpassed the U.S. in the quantity, if not the quality of, scientific publications.

It is therefore not surprising that Google wants to do more business in China. Since Pichai became CEO in 2015, the company has taken significant steps to return to the Chinese market. In December 2017, Google opened an AI research centre in Beijing. In May 2018, it released translation and file management apps, followed by a $550 million USD investment in China’s 2ndlargest online retailer JD.com and a game on Chinese social media platform WeChat in July. However, a mobile search app and a news aggregator, which require massive, continuous and proactive censorship efforts on Google’s part, would have crossed the line. It is especially risky after China passed the new Cybersecurity Law in 2016 with mounting surveillance and censorship pressure. In March 2017, for instance, Tencent, China’s second-largest Internet company, was ordered to shut down its websites that hosted discussions on history, international affairs, and the military. In April 2018, Neihan Duanzi, a joke app with 30 million users, was closed due to “vulgarity.” None of this bodes well for Google’s search and news apps plan.

Chinese Internet Sovereignty and Cyber-Superpower

China’s state-centric, sovereignty-based claims to regulate the Internet inside its digital borders presents challenges not only to Western companies like Google but also to global norms and practices of online activities and Internet governance. As early as 1995, the then Chinese Posts & Telecommunications Minister Wu Jichuan remarked: “By linking with the Internet, we don’t mean absolute freedom of information… If you go through customs, you have to show your passport. It’s the same with the management of information. There is no contradiction at all between the development of telecommunications infrastructure and the exercise of state sovereignty.” One cannot help but recognize the stark contrast between Wu’s view which insists information moves like people and the belief that individuals have the freedom to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” endorsed by the UN General Assembly.

Clearly, the Chinese government envisions a different Internet. Chinese president Xi Jinping, who centralized Internet governance in China during his first term through the Cyberspace Administration of China, stated in 2016: “We should respect the right of individual countries to independently choose their own path of cyber development, model of cyber-regulation and Internet public policies, and participate in international cyberspace governance on an equal footing.” Moreover, Xi is determined to turn China into a “cyber-superpower” through technological investment, development and policy – especially in areas of semiconductors, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence – to grow the Chinese economy without losing the Party’s grip on power.

The ascendance of a Chinese model of Internet governance based on “Internet sovereignty” also coincided with the collapse of Washington’s Internet Freedom agenda and deeper economic and political crises in traditional Western democracies. The utopian ethos of a border-crossing open Internet has slowly given way to both state surveillance and corporate monopolization. The failures of the U.S. government and Silicon Valley to live up to the very Internet freedoms they promote elsewhere – NSA’s massive surveillance scheme as well as Facebook, Twitter and Google’s colossal debacles during the 2016 U.S. presidential election – have made it much harder to point fingers at authoritarian states’ Internet policies and practices. This is amplified by growing threats of cyber-attack, crime and warfare. Acknowledgement of such challenges is by no means consent to the current state of Internet governance dominated by powerful states and Internet monopolists, but a recognition of the persistent Westphalian international order based on notions of national sovereignty and non-interference as well as deeply entrenched neoliberal values and practice to put profit before human dignity and the common good.

To have a more secure, open, and equitable Internet, people must demand it. While users in non-democratic countries face unusual obstacles to do so vocally and overtly, their counterparts in more democratic societies should insist on the consent of the governed. Google’s employees are holding the company to act ethically. Reporters, civic groups and lawmakers are pressing the Internet giant to be accountable. The company’s top management ultimately, too, has to be answerable to their own conscience. By refusing to succumb to censorship pressure, Google can show the world what it is made of and reclaim the moral high ground.

Dr. Min Jiang is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Affiliate Faculty of International Studies at UNC Charlotte, and Research Affiliate at the Center for Global Communication Studies, University of Pennsylvania. She is co-coordinator of Digital Arts, Sciences & Technologies (DAST), a College of Liberal Arts & Sciences initiative in digital humanities; Chair of Faculty Advisory Board to the Confucius Institute at UNC Charlotte; and a Secretariat member of the annual international Chinese Internet Research Conference (CIRC). Image Credit: CC by Julien GONG Min/Flickr.


  1. Google’s true origin partly lies in CIA and NSA research grants for mass surveillance: Two decades ago, the US intelligence community worked closely with Silicon Valley in an effort to track citizens in cyberspace. And Google is at the heart of that origin story. Some of the research that led to Google’s ambitious creation was funded and coordinated by a research group established by the intelligence community to find ways to track individuals and groups online. In fact, the internet itself was created because of an intelligence effort: In the 1970s, the agency responsible for developing emerging technologies for military, intelligence, and national security purposes—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—linked four supercomputers to handle massive data transfers. It handed the operations off to the National Science Foundation (NSF) a decade or so later, which proliferated the network across thousands of universities and, eventually, the public, thus creating the architecture and scaffolding of the World Wide Web. In 1995, one of the first and most promising MDDS grants went to a computer-science research team at Stanford University with a decade-long history of working with NSF and DARPA grants. The primary objective of this grant was “query optimization of very complex queries that are described using the ‘query flocks’ approach.” A second grant—the DARPA-NSF grant most closely associated with Google’s origin—was part of a coordinated effort to build a massive digital library using the internet as its backbone. Both grants funded research by two graduate students who were making rapid advances in web-page ranking, as well as tracking (and making sense of) user queries: future Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. The research by Brin and Page under these grants became the heart of Google: people using search functions to find precisely what they wanted inside a very large data set. The intelligence community, however, saw a slightly different benefit in their research: Could the network be organized so efficiently that individual users could be uniquely identified and tracked? This explains why the intelligence community found Brin’s and Page’s research efforts so appealing; prior to this time, the CIA largely used human intelligence efforts in the field to identify people and groups that might pose threats. The ability to track them virtually (in conjunction with efforts in the field) would change everything.
    It was the beginning of what in just a few years’ time would become Google. The two intelligence-community managers charged with leading the program met regularly with Brin as his research progressed, and he was an author on several other research papers that resulted from this MDDS grant before he and Page left to form Google.
    The grants allowed Brin and Page to do their work and contributed to their breakthroughs in web-page ranking and tracking user queries. Brin didn’t work for the intelligence community—or for anyone else. Google had not yet been incorporated. He was just a Stanford researcher taking advantage of the grant provided by the NSA and CIA through the unclassified MDDS program.

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