While pragmatist Pichai ploughs into China, Google workers fume over concession to censorship

Pichai’s new leadership style and priorities haven’t always sat well with the Google rank and file, who see the company as a defender of the open web

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 August, 2018, 10:49am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 August, 2018, 3:22pm

Google staff awoke on Wednesday to surprising news: Their company is working on a search app tailored, and censored, for China. The project, kept secret from all but select teams and leaders, sparked a furious internal debate.

Yet the move could not have been entirely surprising for Googlers.

Sundar Pichai, Google's chief executive since 2015, has made no secret of his desire to take the search giant back to mainland China. The executive is more pragmatic about the world’s largest internet market than Google’s founders, who pulled search from the mainland in 2010 over censorship concerns.

Under Pichai, Google has invested in Chinese companies, met with its leaders and made it a priority to spread Google’s artificial intelligence (AI) technology across the country. But bringing search back would be Pichai’s boldest move yet and will put his personal stamp firmly on the company.

Co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin built Google to “organise the world’s information and make it universally available”. They viewed China as a threat to the company’s stance as a defender of the open web. Pichai, in contrast, sees China as a hotbed of engineering talent and an appealing market.

Pichai’s new leadership style and priorities have not always sat well with the Google rank and file. Within hours of the China search news breaking, several staff privately criticised the plans. Two employees who spoke to Bloomberg News compared it to Project Maven, a Google AI contract with the Pentagon that sparked an internal revolt earlier this year. The company is not renewing that deal.

Google could give Baidu a serious run for its money in China

Another person who has seen some early examples of the Chinese search app, code-named Dragonfly, described it as a “censorship engine". People trust Google to share true information and the Chinese search app is a betrayal of that, the employee said. The Google workers asked not to be identified because they are not permitted to discuss internal matters.

One employee transferred to a different role at the company because of ethical concerns with Dragonfly, according to an internal message viewed by Bloomberg News. An unnamed company vice-president asked to keep details of the project private so they would not leak to the public, the internal message read.

Google said on Wednesday that the company does not “comment on speculation about future plans” and declined to comment further. In 2010, Brin, now president of parent Alphabet, told The Wall Street Journal, that China’s policies of censorship and surveillance has the “same earmarks of totalitarianism” as Soviet Russia, where he was born. Brin did not respond to an email requesting comment on Wednesday.

Some Googlers, however, posted missives of support for the project on internal message boards on Wednesday. Google’s mission of organising the world’s information should not leave out a fifth of the planet, one person wrote in a post viewed by Bloomberg News. Another said that boycotting the country did little to change the Chinese government or “bring any positive change".

Google said to plan news aggregation app and search engine in China

A worker in China lamented their inability to access Google services in the country, such as sharing pictures through Google Photos or even recommending the app engine they are working on. “As a Chinese citizen working for a company that my parents and relatives can’t access is demotivating,” the person wrote on a message board.

Dragonfly was a popular topic on Memegen, an internal online photo messaging board and cultural barometer at the company. One meme cited a popular Google slogan – “Put the user first” – with an asterisk attached: “Chinese users excluded, because we do not agree with your government.” A second post questioned the merits of American staff deciding global policies. Westerners debating Google entering China “feels somehow like men debating regulating women’s bodies,” it read.

Pichai has not directly addressed the issue of Chinese censorship. But he and his deputies often note the international scope of the company’s ambition. Diane Greene, chief executive of Google’s cloud-computing unit, would not comment on plans to enter China in an interview with Bloomberg News last week. “We want to be a global cloud. Customers want us to be a global cloud,” she said.

In March, two months after opening an AI lab in Beijing, Pichai visited the city and said he was “looking forward to expanding” research efforts there. Two years before that, at the Code Conference, Pichai said, “Google is for everyone. We want to be in China serving Chinese users.”

Baidu slumps on prospect Google plans comeback in China with censored app

Even if Google were to launch search in China now, it’s unclear if people would use it. Since its departure, Baidu has come to dominate traditional search while many users have turned away from desktops in favour of using specific mobile apps. That includes looking through Meituan-Dianping for food, Alibaba Group Holding's Taobao Marketplace and Tmall for e-commerce, Jinri Toutiao for news and Tencent Holdings' WeChat for most other things.

Pichai has been plotting Google’s search moves in China for months, if not years, with an approach focused more on partnerships. Cooperation with internet leader Tencent stands out. Google struck a long-term patent deal with the Chinese company and said it would usher in further tie-ups. The US company also launched a game available exclusively on WeChat and invested US$550 million in Tencent-backed e-commerce services provider

Yet relations between China and Google’s home country have soured recently amid trade tensions. Facebook’s attempt to open an innovation hub was rejected, while Qualcomm walked away from the semiconductor industry’s biggest deal when mainland regulators did not approve it.

It is hard to imagine Chinese authorities deciding Google’s fate without considering the political climate, said Charles Mok, a legislative councilor in Hong Kong. “Anything that has to do with big American companies now has to do with the US-China trade war,” he said.