Do No Evil or Do the Right Thing?

Author: Angeli Patel | UC Berkeley School of Law | J.D. Candidate 2020 | Posted: February 15th, 2019 | Download PDF

In 2010, Google withdrew from China because of its censorship laws and online hacking. Now, it is working on a search engine for China that will censor websites and search terms that are blacklisted by the Chinese government. What’s going on?  

The Chinese government has long believed in “internet sovereignty,” a concept where each country has the right to regulate its own internet—it has already achieved this vision by building The Great Firewall of China. It is also helping other authoritarian countries develop similar online architecture. For China, this also means being able to build mass surveillance and censorship systems. The development of AI makes automated, machine controlled surveillance a dystopian nightmare. The Chinese State Council announced in 2017 that it aims to become the world A.I. leader by 2030, and outperform its rivals to build a domestic industry worth almost $150 billion. Search engines are the biggest data source required to build an accurate AI system. When Google withdrew, it left Baidu, Google’s main competitor in China, to rack up the rest of the market share, and data, of the world’s largest internet market. What is Google’s role now given China’s 2030 goal?

It can be argued that entering China with the fantasies of changing the social atmosphere is a useless endeavor. After all, Google was in China before and nothing changed. If anything, the newest regime compliance to censorship and surveillance laws in order to conduct business in China—one of the original reasons why Google withdrew in 2010. Furthermore, Amnesty International holds the view that re-entering China would be equivalent to enabling an authoritarian regime. It would make Google directly complicit in crimes against human rights activists. If Google compromises here, where will it compromise next?

However,  a less popular but equally meritorious argument is that Google should tap into China’s internet market soon. As China prioritizes AI, the company that ends up being China’s major search engine will have access to the mass amounts of data required to create AI systems—close to 700 million users and $100 billion in revenues. That company will wield incredible power. Currently, young people in China who became internet users after its withdrawal, don’t even know what Google is– Baidu is dominant. This may be Google’s last chance to be privy to data that will be building blocks of Chinese AI. This is also an opportunity to crack China’s ever tight hold on censorship and import values of internet freedom and free expression. Google’s AI Principles state that it “will not design or deploy AI … whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.” In a world where other countries fail to hold each other accountable and where institutions like the UN are unable to influence China, Google is best positioned (the only entity to have AI principles) to move values in the right direction. Because if companies like Google don’t do it, then who will?

It is hard to believe, that a company based on democratic principles is suddenly solely concerned with profiting off of authoritarian regimes. It is especially difficult to understand that it would do so given the backlash from the U.S. government, human rights organizations and internal influential voices.

From a sustainability standpoint, it is clear that Google is taking the long-term view. In a world that is ultimately headed towards AI systems, Google has a duty to operate in a hostile environment for the greater good. Google is famous for its motto, “don’t be evil”. It’s less famous for the fact that in 2015, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, changed the motto to “do the right thing.” In this case, doing the right things means taking the unpopular approach to enter China.

If Google enters China now, it has the chance to be the platform for China’s AI that will likely be used for mass surveillance. It can build the technology in a way that protects civil liberties more than Baidu’s technology would. Google has left China before and it can do so again if need be. Baidu stands to become bigger and more influential than Google if it is not challenged, and its AI technology will likely be exported to authoritarian regimes. It is therefore, sustainable and responsible for Google to enter the market, put up a fight against Baidu, understand the Chinese internet regime and build leverage to negotiate for more leniency.

Maybe Google’s motto change was necessary. Reality rarely presents itself in black and white and companies must often choose between lesser of two evils. With its power and potential, Google has a duty to do the right thing; not just refrain from doing evil. For this reason, Google cannot be a bystander while Chinese AI systems virtually enslave the world’s largest internet market.