In short: Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai downplayed the influence employee activism has on Alphabet's subsidiary and the business decisions it makes. While speaking at a San Francisco event dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the Wired magazine earlier this week, the industry veteran said Google values the opinions voiced by its workforce but considers them just one of many factors affecting its decision-making process. "We don't run the company by holding referendums," the 46-year-old asserted.
His statement came in response to a question about Google's recent decision to drop out of competition for a Pentagon cloud computing contract estimated to be worth around $10 billion. The move, announced last week, was framed as having been made due to the sensitive nature of the contract that may not align with Google's AI principles. Regardless, Google has full intention to work with U.S. Military again, Mr. Pichai said, adding that the firm "greatly respects" American armed forces and everything they do to keep the country safe. The comments are believed to have been at least partially aimed at lowering the tensions between the Mountain View, California-based tech giant and Washington as both the Trump administration and GOP-controlled Congress so far didn't prove to be Google's biggest supporters and have criticized the firm on numerous occasions over a variety of issues, including its decision to pull from controversial Project Maven earlier this year.
Background: This March, thousands of employees signed a petition protesting against Google's involvement in Project Maven, an initiative seeking to weaponize artificial intelligence in collaboration with the U.S. Defense Department, and about a dozen of them quit over the matter. Google eventually opted not to renew its project contract, with some legislators describing that decision as disappointing. The timing of the move was inopportune as it came just as Google came under additional scrutiny due to its continued collaboration with Chinese tech giants such as Huawei that the U.S. administration still considers a national security threat. Around the same time, Google faced criticism for failing to send any one of its top officials to attend an election security hearing.
All of those issues compounded, deteriorating Google's relationship with both Capitol Hill and the White House. President Trump criticized Alphabet's subsidiary on numerous occasions this summer, alleging the company is biased against right-leaning worldviews and is silencing conservative voices across the World Wide Web. While the head of the state threatened with investigations, the government has yet to act on those statements. Google vehemently denied any suggestion of developing biased solutions, repeatedly arguing that its services were designed to be maximally useful regardless of one's political stances.
Shortly following Project Maven protests at Google, the company published a list of AI principles that it vowed to honor moving forward. Among other things, the technology juggernaut vowed not to pursue any kind of AI solutions that are likely to cause harm to any individuals or groups, weapons included. However, Dr. Jack Poulson, former Google Senior Research Scientist, cast doubt over the legitimacy of those principles last month, claiming that simultaneously with the publication of Google's new ethics code, the company was pursuing Project Dragonfly, a polarizing initiative seeking to relaunch Google Search in China, albeit in a censored state. In a letter sent to U.S. Senators in late September, Dr. Poulson argued Project Dragonfly contradicted the AI principles as Google was drafting them and its existence wasn't planned to be publicly revealed anytime soon.
Despite facing significant pressure from both sides of the political aisle in the country, as well as its own employees, Google continues ahead with the idea of launching a censored version of Search for China. Top company executives — including Mr. Pichai — said the firm isn't close to organizing a return of Search to the Far Eastern country but didn't deny the ambition to eventually do so. Dr. Poulson described Project Dragonfly as an initiative whose goal is for Google to "capitulate" to Beijing. The company pulled Search from China in 2010 to protest the Communist administration's censorship. Eight years later, as its flagship services face growth stagnation, Google appears to be more willing to embrace the idea of competing in China. In a late August letter sent to several senators, Mr. Pichai argued Google never truly left China, citing hundreds of millions of Android users in the country, as well as the local presence of some of its apps such as Google Translate. He concluded that Google will approach any growth project in a sensible manner, striving to invest only in initiatives aligned with its ethical standards, albeit without providing any concrete details on the matter.
Washington is still turning on the pressure over Google's China ambitions, with the latest criticism coming from one of its top officials – Vice President Mike Pence. While speaking at the Hudson Institute in Washington in early October, the VP called for Google to immediately end Project Dragonfly and stop supporting a government that poses a massive national security risk to the U.S. Google didn't respond to the 59-year-old directly.
Impact: Mr. Pichai's latest comments suggest Google will still try to walk the thin line between being an ally of Washington and investing significant resources in China and projects targeting consumers in the Far Eastern country. Regardless, the company's cloud ambitions will take a significant hit given recent developments and the fact that Amazon's cloud division already enjoys a higher security rating from the U.S. government and will most likely be awarded the lucrative $10 billion contract now that Google dropped out of the race.
The Alphabet-owned company will hence have to look for intense growth opportunities elsewhere while faced with both government pressure and employee activism, as well as scrutiny from human rights and privacy advocates. The latter groups have been particularly active over the course of the last several days due to the Google+ privacy debacle that left data of some 500,000 users exposed over a period between 2015 and March of this year. Combined with the multi-billion-dollar fines the European Commission recently issued to it for antitrust behavior, Google has an extremely complicated road to navigate moving forward.