Google’s employees and Google’s management are clashing over ethical issues again. Just two months after Google’s “Project Maven” military drone project was seemingly resolved, Google’s employees are now up in arms over company plans to create censored products for China. The internal protests resulted in the issue being addressed at an all-hands meeting, and we got to learn a bit more about Google’s China plans.
Reports from earlier this month claimed Google was working on products for the Chinese market, detailing plans for a search engine and news app that complied with the Chinese government’s censorship and surveillance demands. The news was a surprise to many Googlers, and yesterday an article from The New York Times detailed a Maven-style internal revolt at the company. Fourteen hundred employees signed a letter demanding more transparency from Google’s leadership on ethical issues, saying, “Google employees need to know what we’re building.” The letter says many employees only learned about the project through news reports and that “currently we do not have the information required to make ethically informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment.”
According to a report from The Wall Street Journal, Google addressed the issue of China at this week’s all-hands meeting. The report says CEO Sundar Pichai told employees the company was “not close to launching a search product” in China but that Pichai thinks Google can do good by engaging with China. “I genuinely do believe we have a positive impact when we engage around the world,” The Journal quotes Pichai as saying, “and I don’t see any reason why that would be different in China.”
Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was a driving force behind Google’s decision to leave China in 2010, was also at the meeting. The report says Brin “sounded optimistic about doing more business in China” but that Brin called progress in the country “slow-going and complicated.” Brin, having fled the Soviet Union as a child, once said he was “particularly sensitive to the stifling of individual liberties” thanks to that experience.
It seems like every few years there is a round of stories about Google investigating a return to China, with the previous wave coming in 2015. Making it actually happen would involve balancing the demands on the Chinese government with a solution Google employees can stomach. With China being the world’s largest market and pretty much the only country Google doesn’t have a serious foothold in, it seems like the China issue is a constant temptation for the company.