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“No” to a Google Search Engine with Chinese Characteristics—Not “Right Now” or Ever

December 11, 2018

In a Congressional hearing today, faced with questions from multiple members of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee about Google’ s controversial Dragonfly Project—a search engine in development designed to meet the censorship requirements of the Chinese government—Google CEO Sundar Pichai repeatedly stated: “right now there are no plans to launch search in China,” and admitted that more than 100 Google engineers  have been working on a beta version.

When pressed about whether Google would rule out “launching a censorship or surveillance tool in China while you are CEO of Google” (question from Congressman David Cicilline), Pichai said, “We think it’s our duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information. . . . We will be very thoughtful and will engage widely as we make progress.” 

In other words, Pichai does not rule out the introduction by Google of a censored search engine in China at some point in the future. But framing the introduction of such a search engine as something that would give users “access to information” makes a cynical mockery of the essence of the mounting concerns about Dragonfly: in times of rising authoritarianism around the world, such a search engine would not only help Chinese censors to strip their citizens of the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and information, but also have profound implications well beyond China’s borders.

The firestorm of opposition to Dragonfly has come from civil society as well as within Google. More than 700 Google engineers have signed a letter in late November calling for the cancellation of Dragonfly, a call supported today by dozens of NGOs, including Human Rights in China.

In the end, Pichai’s testimony today fails to address the serious concerns raised regarding the impact of Dragonfly or any censored search tool, especially given the stark political, legal, and ideological reality of an authoritarian regime in China.

Domestically, Chinese authorities have been keeping their people tightly bound within ideological and informational confines that are set up to prevent any thought or expression that might challenge the supremacy of the rule of the Communist Party of China.

To ensure obedience, the CPC has been waging a society-wide ideological campaign that requires all professional institutions, including media outlets, schools, and law firms, to install Party committees internally to “guide” their work. Just last week, more than 100,000 lawyers in China were made to take a loyalty oath to the Party.

In recent years, Chinese authorities also introduced a Cybersecurity Law and regulations with the aim to enforce a comprehensive and systematic censorship and social control regime under a national security justification (read security of Party rule).  The Internet regulatory legal framework is specifically aimed at holding everyone in the online ecosystem—including infrastructure operators, service providers, content publishers, and all users—responsible for any content deemed “sensitive.”

In the Congressional hearing today, Pichai asserted that Google is:

. . . dedicated to the free flow of information . . . . We cherish the values and freedoms that have allowed us to grow and serve so many users.

It defies logic and fact that any search engine built to the specifications of the Chinese censors would be consistent with these values and freedoms, and more importantly, with values and freedoms enshrined in international human rights law.

The reality is that a Google search engine with Chinese characteristics will only serve to curb freedom of expression and information, not to protect it.  Irrespective of Google’s stated intentions, such a search browser will empower the government—to control what people can know and say—that is, to disempower the people. 

And this impact extends beyond China as it is stepping up its global efforts to attack and replace the existing international human rights system—with one that is based not on the universality of human rights, but on the “localization” of human rights contingent upon so-called national conditions. In that system, people would only have the kind of human rights their governments see fit to give them.  If China is successful in selling its model of human rights to the world, any censorship technologies will contribute to not only disempowering people inside China but also those well beyond.

HRIC urges Google to categorically abandon plans to build a censored search engine for the Party-state regime in China. Authoritarian regimes should not be provided with censorship tools—not now, not ever. HRIC urges the international community to closely monitor developments well beyond the spotlight of today’s U.S. Congressional hearing.

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