Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s decision to finally talk publicly about its plan to return to China with a censored search engine seems out of character for a company that takes pride in offering a tool for free speech and promotes democracy.
The censored engine -- first reported by the Intercept in August and dubbed Project Dragonfly -- puts restrictions on the access to information to comply with Chinese laws.
Last week at the Wired 25 Summit, Pichai told attendees that the censored engine managed to serve more than 99% of the queries that users requested. This is after Google remained quiet for months, since August, after news broke of the project. And without naming names, he pointed to information in search about fake cancer treatments and how Google's search engine could prevent those types of tragedies.
Information about the search advertisement appeared in 2016 after Wei Zexi, a college sophomore, died following bad cancer treatment advice in a paid-search ad that served up in query results on Baidu’s search engine.
eMarketer estimates that marketers will spend about $25 billion on search ads in China this year. Not much compared with the U.S., but it’s growing, especially on mobile devices.
Jack Poulson, a senior Google research scientist, also resigned over this censored search engine for China. Poulson focused on improving the accuracy of Google’s search systems. It also was designed to remove information about political dissidents, free speech, democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest.
Disheartening, yes, that Google would give in to capitalism and censorship, but the most disheartening news in terms of free speech belongs to the death of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi.
On October 17, the Washington Post ran Khashoggi’s last editorial. In it he wrote:
Since the Washington Post published the piece, we learned that Saudi Arabia acknowledged Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate in Istanbul. A statement citing the preliminary findings suggests “a physical altercation” broke out between and those he met with, which led to his death.
Reports suggest the altercation occurred inside the consulate. In the name of “free speech,” I say, show us the video of inside the consulate where the altercation took place.
Khashoggi’s disappearance, unfortunately, is not an isolated incident. Let's not forget about Daniel Pearl, a journalist for The Wall Street Journal, with American and Israeli citizenship. He was kidnapped and beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan.
Khashoggi’s story is just the latest in a long list of ways to squash free speech and those who believe in the process.