Mind Matters News and Analysis on Natural and Artificial Intelligence
jimmy-chang-569951-unsplash
Photo by Jimmy Chang on Unsplash

Would Google be happier if America were run more like China?

This might be a good time to ask

China is quite serious about using high tech to force its citizens into the mold the Party needs:

As recently reported, “under the social credit scheme, points are lost and gained based on readings from a sophisticated network of 200 million surveillance cameras—a figure set to triple in eighteen months.” Various factors affect the social credit scores, including what those you associate with do and say.

If your relative criticizes the government, your score goes down. If the government considers your behavior to be satisfactory, your score goes up, eventually resulting in exclusive advantages such as travel, airfare, dating site advantages, loan access, discounts on bills, improved job prospects, and priority on university applications. Paul Rowan Brian, “The Chinese social monitoring system and why Americans should take note” at MercatorNet

Of course, if you stray from the path of virtue, the opposite will happen. You could be shamed, fined, fired, and jailed, of course, but before it gets to that, Brian tells us, your internet will be “specifically targeted to slow down your connection speed.”

This week, Google confirmed, more or less, that it is working on a strictly censored search engine for China. And it’s not just China either. Other governments also want citizens’ user information:

Anyone pumped for this week’s launch of Google’s Home Hub might want to temper their excitement. A smart home is a surveilled home. That’s been the concern of privacy activists since citizens started lighting up their abodes with so-called “smart” tech in recent years.

Take Google’s current smart home division, Nest Labs. It’s been told to hand over data on 300 separate occasions since 2015. That’s according to a little-documented transparency report from Nest, launched a year after the $3.2 billion Google acquisition. The report shows around 60 requests for data were received by Google’s unit in the first half of this year alone. In all those cases recorded from 2015 onward, governments have sought data on as many as 525 Nest account holders.
Thomas Brewster, “Smart Home Surveillance: Governments Tell Google’s Nest To Hand Over Data 300 Times” at Forbes

The first known case in the United States was discovered this month.

 A contradiction is developing. In 2016, Google employees felt free to jigger the search engine to meddle in a U.S. election. Earlier this month, a Google executive made his negative opinion of the recent nomination of judge Brett Kavanagh to the Supreme Court profanely clear but a company spokeswoman told media, “What employees say in their personal capacity has no bearing on the way we build or operate our products.”

On the China model, the freedom these employees have voted themselves would not be an acceptable response at all;  actions and opinions must line up closely with the aims of the Party. Perhaps, in the United States, the policy can be interpreted broadly as lining up with the opinions of whichever party Google or Googlers appear to support. In a global world, the obvious solution going forward is to ensure that only persons who hold opinions likely to be in good odor with the Party/party are hired. That is precisely the sort of culture fired engineer James Damore accuses Google of creating.

Inconveniently for Google, most Americans are not on that page:

Among the general population, a full 80 percent believe that “political correctness is a problem in our country.” Even young people are uncomfortable with it, including 74 percent ages 24 to 29, and 79 percent under age 24. On this particular issue, the woke are in a clear minority across all ages.

Youth isn’t a good proxy for support of political correctness—and it turns out race isn’t, either.

Whites are ever so slightly less likely than average to believe that political correctness is a problem in the country: 79 percent of them share this sentiment. Instead, it is Asians (82 percent), Hispanics (87 percent), and American Indians (88 percent) who are most likely to oppose political correctness. Yascha Mounk, “Americans Strongly Dislike PC Culture” at The Atlantic

One option for Google, especially if its relations with the American government get any testier, is to fire its American customers and invest much more heavily in Europe and China instead.

Google execs have been thinking about this “climate” problem. A leaked internal discussion document, the “Cultural Context Report” (March 2018), admits a “shift toward censorship.” It characterizes free speech as a “utopian narrative,” pointing out that “As the tech companies have grown more dominant on the global stage, their intrinsically American values have come into conflict with some of the values and norms of other countries.”

Where Europe is concerned, the choice Google faces is between “the American tradition that prioritises free speech for democracy, not civility” and “the European tradition that favors dignity over liberty, and civility over freedom.” If Google chooses this model for Europe and the censorship/surveillance model for China, it may well develop an impressively cozy relationship with governments while, in the United States, it would continue to depend on the goodwill of users.

File:Surveillance equipment 5411.jpg
Even back then: facial and motor vehicle recognition technology, 2008/Maraparacc

Lest there be doubt about what Google’s censorship in China means, an engineer, Vijay Boyapati, describes it from the days when he worked for Google in 2002–2007:

So entire news sections were to be removed from the product. So the world section was to be removed. They even — not immediately but later on — they asked us to remove the business section as well…

Any story that came under those categories was to be removed and certain topics were not allowed either — stories on human rights and things of that nature. And they also had a requirement that if there was a particular story that they didn’t like, we would be able to remove it from our site within 15 minutes. And the thing that really troubled me at the time was the idea that someone would have the courage to write about something important and then we would censor it. So I refused to work on it. Lydia Emmanouilidou, “This Google engineer was asked to create a censored version of Google News for China. He refused.” at PRI

In retrospect, Boyapati might not have been the right person for the firm, whose motto at the time was, ironically, “Don’t be evil.” And the motto is blander now: Do the right thing.

Whatever that is.

Hat tip: Eric Holloway

See also: Google branches out into politics

Google powering China’s snoop culture

and

Senior Google scientist quits over Google’s censorship in China


Would Google be happier if America were run more like China?