Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s recent congressional testimony capped a deservedly rough year for the embattled search giant. While Pichai largely avoided any major missteps in his testimony—thanks mostly to the technological illiteracy of the questioners—even Google-friendly sources couldn’t help noticing his evasiveness on one key point: the infamous proposed partnership between Google and the Chinese government to build a censored search engine in line with Chinese government ideology—a project ominously code-named “Project Dragonfly.”
Most notably, Pichai absolutely refused to rule out making such a product, instead devolving to corporate doublespeak about being “committed to engagement,” whatever that means. He also tried to downplay Project Dragonfly, characterizing it merely as an “internal product,” rather than something under serious development.
This was wise of him, considering that the reports on what Dragonfly allegedly is being designed to do. According to a suppressed Google internal memo, Dragonfly is being built not only to limit search results, but also to enable the Chinese government to track what every single citizen searches for on the app. In other words, it’s a surveillance tool disguised as a search engine.
In a country on the verge of implementing a totalitarian “social credit” score for every citizen—a score that will infect every element of their lives, up to and including their online gaming habits—this is a hideously irresponsible thing for an American company to provide. Small wonder, then, that Congress grilled Pichai on the subject.
Death of Privacy, Rise of Censorship
What is more worrisome than this for Americans, however, is that along with dodging questions on Dragonfly, Pichai also evaded questions on another topic. Specifically, when Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.) asked Pichai about Google’s ability to collect data on American citizens, and whether that data collection should be something Americans have the right to opt into, rather than having it done by default unless they opt out, Pichai again demurred on giving a straight answer.
“I think a framework for privacy where users have a sense of transparency, control, and choice, and a clear understanding of the choices they need to make is very good for consumers,” Pichai stammered.
Even on its own, to call this an unsatisfactory answer is putting it mildly. But, considering its conjunction with Pichai’s less-than-forthcoming answers on Dragonfly, it is positively alarming. Based on these two areas of evasion, Americans would be highly justified in wondering: If Pichai is prepared to hand over Google’s massive data collection efforts to the Chinese government to track its citizens for political purposes, then what would he be willing to do to Americans? Given Google’s power-grabbing stated plans to become “the good censor” of the entire internet, this is far from an abstract question. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any level of power that Google’s snowflake-infested headquarters doesn’t feel entitled to have over everyone, Americans included.
This also makes the development of Project Dragonfly not merely a question of trying to assure the privacy of oppressed Chinese citizens. It makes it an urgent threat to Americans. Even if Pichai were telling the truth that the development of Dragonfly is purely internal, and has not been pitched to the Chinese government, the fact remains that tools developed to censor the internet in China can be used to censor it here in America.
Worse, if Google decided to implement such a censorious regime on its own search engine, there would be no real way for Americans even to know about it, given Google’s notoriously private attitude toward its search algorithms. Nor would there be a way for Americans to know the scope of potential surveillance that Google might be conducting on them. For journalists or politicians critical of Google, this is an extremely live concern, considering that Google can use its cell phones to track even details as minute as what vehicles people are using to travel, and to where. That kind of surveillance capacity for political opponents could easily be weaponized as material for blackmail or public shaming.
That we even have to think about these kind of scenarios is a sign of just how anti-American Google’s entire current philosophical attitude is. The small-l liberal ideas that people should be permitted to make their own decisions, that the public square and the private sphere should be separate, or that people’s thoughts are no business of the state, or of massive corporations that arrogate government power to themselves, are all cornerstones of American political philosophy. They are also all ideas for which the development of Project Dragonfly, and the data collection without consent model of Google’s business, display an open and active contempt.
In the past, I have wondered what the data tech companies extract from Americans must be worth, and how Americans might reclaim that value in monetary terms. But Pichai’s testimony shows that there may be a more fundamental reckoning than this coming: namely, how much does the collection of data impose a cost on individual human freedom, and is that cost irreversible? For the sake of the values that animate America, we can only hope the answer to the last question is “no.”
Otherwise, we could not only see the American way entombed by the Googley way, but based on how Sundar Pichai treats questions that threaten his company’s power, we might never even know that the Dragonfly killed the Eagle.
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