General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently expressed his befuddlement at Google's insistence to continue investing in China while simultaneously denying further research and development collaborations with the Pentagon. "We are the good guys and it's inexplicable to me that we would make compromises in order to advance our business interests in China," the Marine Corps general said, pointing to Beijing's efforts to restrict the freedoms of its citizens as evidence of Google being ideologically incompatible with the Far Eastern country.
The 63-year-old reiterated another established argument against working with China – the fact that Chinese firms have a long history of intellectual property disputes and patent theft allegations — many of which were proved over the years — hurting companies in the West, including those in the United States, the most advanced tech economy on the planet. General Dunford hence directly criticized Google's recent decision to not renew its contract for Project Maven, a controversial initiative that saw it collaborate with Pentagon on artificial intelligence weaponization associated with aerial drone imagery which essentially sought to make the U.S. military's drone fleet deadlier.
Employee activism and ideological conflicts
The cancellation of the company's Project Maven efforts was announced in June following a significant wave of employee activism at the Mountain View, California-based tech giant. Around the same time, Google published its new AI principles meant to define the manner in which the firm will approach AI R&D moving forward, with Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai stating Project Maven doesn't align with those ethical standards. The U.S. government and Capitol Hill both criticized the decision, with General Dunford's recent comments being largely in line with that disapproval.
However, what came to light two months later is that simultaneously with the release of the said principles, Google was working on Project Dragonfly, a top-secret effort aimed at relaunching its Search service in China, modified in line with Beijing's harsh censorship laws. The revelation prompted massive backlash from Google employees, activists, government officials, and top legislators. Despite the fact that even Vice President Mike Pence publicly called for the project to be dropped, senior Google officials including Mr. Pichai refused to commit to such an act, though they also downplayed the affair by stating no firm decision on whether to relaunch Search in China has yet been made, something that later reports suggested was patently false.
Google's CEO is expected to once again be pressured on the matter on Tuesday when the industry veteran is scheduled to be grilled by the House Judiciary Committee as part of a hearing on accountability and transparency seeking to explore the manner in which the tech giant collects, manages, and uses data, as well as its policies on content moderation. The 46-year-old is unlikely to change his stance on the matter in any any significant way but could still be in for a major public grilling seeing how this is the GOP's last opportunity to do so until at least 2021, with the party losing the House majority at the latest mid-terms in early November and being set to be replaced by a Democratic leadership next month. Until that happens, the Republican party will likely want one last chance to press Google on what it perceives is systematic discrimination against conservative voices online. Even President Donald Trump criticized Alphabet's subsidiary on the matter on numerous occasions and while Google's leadership repeatedly denied building its products with any inherent bias, previous leaks — including that of a company-wide meeting in the aftermath of the 2016 election — were indicative of a strong left-leaning philosophy being deeply ingrained in its corporate culture.
A never-ending debate on biases and agendas
While even the majority of the political right in the U.S. acknowledges private companies are entitled to pushing political agendas, many argue Google's unique position in the industry prevents it from exercising that right; some two decades following its establishment, the company is essentially the gatekeeper to the world's information and if its monopoly cannot be broken apart using conventional means, it should at the very least be heavily regulated. The entire debate around Google's biases is unusual in numerous aspects but primarily because it prompted the conservative side of the aisle to advocate for harsher regulations despite its historically hands-off approach to dealing with big businesses and the economy as a whole. And while the Republican criticism of Google's corporate practices isn't likely to go away anytime soon, the fact that the House and its powers of calling for hearings and issuing subpoenas are going to the Democrats in January likely means those issues won't be in such a massive media spotlight over the following two years.
Google sticking with the false dichotomy argument
While Google has often been evasive on the issue, the latest remarks on the matter from its executives have all been aimed at promoting a false dichotomy argument in regards to criticism in the vein of what General Dunford voiced several days back. In other words, Google is doing its best to highlight the fact that its past, present, and future investments in China are in no way meant to be interpreted as a decline in its interest to continue investing in its home country and keep collaborating with the U.S. government moving forward. As things stand right now, Project Dragonfly may be commercialized as early as next spring as Google continues seeking growth in spite of the political backlash it's facing due to its newfound willingness to play ball with China's communist regime and comply with its strict censorship in exchange to tapping into the world's largest market of Internet users. Whether that strategy will prove to be the correct call in the long term remains to be seen but it's an unsurprising move on Google's part seeing how the company is running out of markets to expand into but still has many investors it needs to please with optimistic growth forecasts, especially as some of its other side bets such as consumer electroniscs are yet to pan out in any meaningful way, at least from a financial perspective.