For years, Google's unofficial slogan was "Don't Be Evil." Until recently, it even incorporated the phrase into its code of conduct for employees. There was evidence that Google meant it: the way it conducted itself in China when it operated its search engine there between 2006 and 2010, for example. Google accepted the Chinese government's censorship requirements but insisted on telling users that their searches — say, for "Tiananmen Square protests" — were being censored, instead of just showing no results. Under China's communist dictatorship, this in itself was revolutionary.
"Google went to China hoping it would be a force for good," as Wired magazine put it in 2010, "and that its decision to compromise its principles would be balanced out by the good that its search engine would bring to Chinese citizens." But Beijing, not content with mere censorship, hacked Google's system for Gmail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists. Google, being not evil, did the right thing in response and announced in 2010 it would no longer censor its Chinese platform. This was tantamount to inviting the government to completely block it, which it did.
Google quietly dropped "Don't Be Evil" from its code of conduct in May. In an apparently unrelated but certainly ironic development, the company is reportedly secretly building a new, censored Chinese version of its search engine, which indicates it's planning another go at China's market. This has prompted a letter of protest from about 1,400 Google employees. Google should listen to them — and learn from its past — and rethink this move.
There is legitimate debate about whether the best way to deal with repressive regimes is to ostracize them completely or engage with them in ways that promote democratic values. Google tried the engagement route eight years ago and saw the result. What's not legitimate, ever, is to help those governments repress their own people. And systemic censorship is most certainly a form of repression.
Lack of transparency is a key characteristic of repressive regimes, and here it seems to be contagious. The development of the new search engine, dubbed "project Dragonfly," is so secret that even some of the Google employees involved don't know exactly what they're working on. "Dragonfly and Google's return to China raise urgent moral and ethical issues," states the protest letter. Among the most pressing: "Google employees need to know what we're building."
If what Google is building is a censorship platform to offer to China's government in exchange for tapping into its huge internet market — and it sure looks that way — then the company truly has drifted from its one-time motto. It should get back to it. Don't be evil; don't return to China if censorship is the part of the deal.
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