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Google Powering China’s Snoop Culture

They’ve suppressed the memo but can’t suppress the uproar around it

The memo “revealed explosive details” about the about a plan to launch a censored search engine in China:

The memo was shared earlier this month among a group of Google employees who have been organizing internal protests over the censored search system, which has been designed to remove content that China’s authoritarian Communist Party regime views as sensitive, such as information about democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest.

According to three sources familiar with the incident, Google leadership discovered the memo and were furious that secret details about the China censorship were being passed between employees who were not supposed to have any knowledge about it. Subsequently, Google human resources personnel emailed employees who were believed to have accessed or saved copies of the memo and ordered them to immediately delete it from their computers. Emails demanding deletion of the memo contained “pixel trackers” that notified human resource managers when their messages had been read, recipients determined.

The Dragonfly memo reveals that a prototype of the censored search engine was being developed as an app for both Android and iOS devices, and would force users to sign in so they could use the service. The memo confirms, as The Intercept first reported last week, that users’ searches would be associated with their personal phone number. Ryan Gallagher and Lee Fang, “Google Suppresses Memo Revealing Plans to Closely Track Search Users in China” at The Intercept

In an earlier story, The Intercept had also revealed that Google had compiled a censorship blacklist and that the Chinese government would use phone numbers to find out who was searching for what:

Previously undisclosed details about the plan, obtained by The Intercept on Friday, show that Google compiled a censorship blacklist that included terms such as “human rights,” “student protest,” and “Nobel Prize” in Mandarin. …

Sources familiar with the project said that prototypes of the search engine linked the search app on a user’s Android smartphone with their phone number. This means individual people’s searches could be easily tracked – and any user seeking out information banned by the government could potentially be at risk of interrogation or detention if security agencies were to obtain the search records from Google. Ryan Gallagher, “Google China Prototype Links Searches to Phone Numbers” at The Intercept

Greg Poulson quit over the China surveillance.

It may at first seem deeply ironic that a Silicon Valley ostensibly committed to liberal values would help to unleash this storm (and at least one senior Googler has quit over it). But in a long-form article at The New Atlantis, a political analyst carefully traces the growth in its enthusiasm for “smart government,” using the tools of information technology for social engineering:

For eight years, Google and the Obama administration forged a uniquely close relationship. Their special bond is best ascribed not to the revolving door, although hundreds of meetings were held between the two; nor to crony capitalism, although hundreds of people have switched jobs from Google to the Obama administration or vice versa; nor to lobbying prowess, although Google is one of the top corporate lobbyists.

Rather, the ultimate source of the special bond between Google and the Obama White House — and modern progressive government more broadly — has been their common ethos. Both view society’s challenges today as social-engineering problems, whose resolutions depend mainly on facts and objective reasoning. Both view information as being at once ruthlessly value-free and yet, when properly grasped, a powerful force for ideological and social reform. And so both aspire to reshape Americans’ informational context, ensuring that we make choices based only upon what they consider the right kinds of facts — while denying that there would be any values or politics embedded in the effort. Adam J. White, “Google.gov” at The New Atlantis

China, with its penchant for digital dictatorship, is a more favorable venue for social engineering than the United States, of course. And in the meantime, Google and other social media behemoths have managed to sufficiently annoy the American government that anti-trust investigations loom.

Hat tips: Eric Holloway and Heather Zeiger

See also: Imagining Life after Google


Are social media companies violating anti-trust laws? DOJ to investigate. The efforts of social media companies to meddle in politics may now be getting pushback from politicians

Google Powering China’s Snoop Culture