Tensions at Google are rising as the company's hunt for leakers is heating up, The Times reports, citing sources close to the Alphabet-owned company. The company has a zero-tolerance policy on leaks and is terminating anyone proven to have talked to the press on internal affairs. Dr. Jack Poulson, a former Google Senior Research Scientist who left the firm in late summer over the controversial Project Dragonfly initiative which he described as Google's plan to "capitulate" to China, is now saying the technology juggernaut's top priority is stopping leaks by any means necessary, revealing that employees are incentivized to report one another over suspected whistleblowing activities. Mr. Poulson doesn't paint Google as the only non-transparent player in the Silicon Valley and the U.S. tech segment in general that's adamant to sweep its ethically concerning projects under the rug however it can, with the artificial intelligence expert pointing to Amazon and Microsoft as another two firms enforcing similar anti-whistleblower policies instead of reflecting on the causes of employee activism they've recently been experiencing.
Dissent already worked once for disgruntled Googlers
Still, it was precisely employee activism that convinced Google to let a lucrative contract with the U.S. Military expire this June when the tech giant opted not to renew the agreement regarding Project Maven, a highly controversial initiative as part of which it collaborated with the Pentagon on weaponizing AI and ultimately making the government's drones deadlier through improved imagery. A number of senior employees quit over the matter before Google's management caved in to that internal pressure, though that episode now appears to be an outlier and not the new norm.
Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai seemed worried about that ordeal and how it made the firm's leadership appear weak several months following its conclusion, shortly after the existence of Project Dragonfly became public knowledge. At a San Francisco event held in mid-October, the 46-year-old asserted isn't run through referendums and won't succumb to that management style moving forward. That strong message was followed by less firm comments on Project Dragonfly itself as Mr. Pichait repeatedly described the effort as being highly experimental in nature, stating the company has yet to decide whether to relaunch Google Search in China.
However, more recent reports suggest those comments were plainly false as Google apparently already greenlit Project Dragonfly for commercialization and could launch a censored version of Search in the Far Eastern country as early as spring. What's more, the same sources claimed the firm engaged in misleading, deceptive, and occasionally outright hostile practices meant to suppress employee concerns surrounding the project. Late last month, insiders claimed Google China chief Scott Beaumont did whatever was in his power to avoid allowing the service to be heavily scrutinized by the tech giant's privacy and security teams to the point that he was eventually maintaining an openly adversarial relationship with them. Employee concerns were reportedly swept under the rug as well, though there weren't many of them initially, primarily due to the fact the company's leadership disclosed the specifics of the initiative to only several hundred engineers out of the firm's global workforce numbering some 88,000 people.
Google's ambitions in China becoming more controversial by the day
As employee activism proved to be the end of Project Maven, over 130 Google engineers recently opted for a public push against Project Dragonfly as well, delivering it in the form of an open letter meant to pressure the company's leadership to drop the program that has so far been internally described as "dangerous" and "unethical," whereas parties not affiliated with Alphabet's subsidiary made an even smaller effort to mince words. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence publicly called for Project Dragonfly to be scrapped several weeks back, criticizing Google for considering catering to a communist regime adamant on aggressive censorship while simultaneously refusing to work with the federal government on crucial efforts such as defense contracts. An almost identical sentiment was reiterated by Marine General and Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford who said he was baffled by Google's decision to choose China over "the good guys."
But growth remains a top priority
Google's insistence to continue onward with Project Dragonfly is widely understood to be a result of its rising need for finding new growth avenues which are now few and far between. China is essentially the only major hole in the juggernaut's global footprint and one that could provide it with access to close to a billion Internet users. The allure of that opportunity appears to be too great for Google to drop its ambitions in the country as quickly as it dropped Project Maven and while the two moves aren't directly related, i.e. one doesn't affect the other in a direct manner, the fact that the U.S. government is now relating them is unsurprising, especially given the above-average amount of tensions observed between Google and Washington in recent years. Between its troubled fight against fake news, defending itself against political bias allegations, and its growing interest in China, America's largest rival on a number of fronts, Google presently isn't exactly in the federal government's good graces and the amount of political capital it can draw from may not be enough for it to commercialize Project Dragonfly without significant consequences.
While the U.S. and China recently called a 90-day truce in regards to their massive trade war that already burdened tens of billions of dollars worth of goods and technologies, that peace may not last long seeing how the two sides are still at odds in regards to what they consider a "fair" trade deal. That sensitive geopolitical situation makes this an inopportune time for Google to experiment with Washington's goodwill and play along with China's strict censorship laws which are generally seen as being fundamentally ideologically incompatible with Western values, the very same values Google was citing while announcing its decision to kill the original Search service for China in 2010. Eight years later, the company still has many investors to please with growth figures but is almost out of markets that could allow for such growth to happen.