Tech giant Google’s close relationship with China is being called into question once again after the firm failed to join Twitter and Facebook in criticizing the country’s communist government even after being forced to crack down on a disinformation campaign aiming to discredit the current protests in Hong Kong.
Business Insider reports that tech giant Google is facing severe criticism after it stopped short of calling out the communist Chinese government even after being forced to remove 210 YouTube channels engaging in a coordinated disinformation campaign aiming to discredit protests happening in Hong Kong. In stark contrast to Google’s failure to criticize the country, both Facebook and Twitter have actively blamed China outright for the disinformation campaign.
Google announced this week that its video-sharing platform YouTube had removed 210 channels from its platform that had ties to a coordinated influence operation around the current protests happening in Hong Kong, but Google did not state who was responsible for this disinformation campaign.
While Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are all banned in China, Google has greater dealings in the country than many of its rivals. Google-operated in the country until 2010 when it pulled out due to excessive government censorship, but it has been revealed in recent years that the firm was working on a Chinese government censored search engine that would be permitted to operate within the country.
The censored search engine, codenamed “Project Dragonfly” was reported to have “effectively ended,” in December 2018 which Google then confirmed to the Verge in March but some Google employees internally believed that the project could still be ongoing. Employees noticed in December there had been around 500 changes made to Dragonfly-related code, another 400 changes were made in January and it was noticed that company budgeting plans showed around 100 workers grouped under the budget associated with Project Dragonfly. Later reporters in March 2019 indicated that Google had undertaken a “performance review” of Project Dragonfly.
At the time, Google denied any ongoing work on the project telling the Verge: “This speculation is wholly inaccurate. Quite simply: there’s no work happening on Dragonfly. As we’ve said for many months, we have no plans to launch Search in China and there is no work being undertaken on such a project. Team members have moved to new projects.”
During the WIRED 25 summit in 2018, Pichai said that Chinese tech innovations drove Google to develop an understanding of the market internally: “It’s a wonderful, innovative market. We wanted to learn what it would look like if we were in China, so that’s what we built internally,” said Pichai, adding: “given how important the market is and how many users there are, we feel obliged to think hard about this problem and take a longer-term view.”
On Thursday, Google revealed that the Hong Kong disinformation campaign was shut down in a blog post from a member of Google’s security team named Shane Huntley. In the blog post, Huntley stated that the activity of the YouTube accounts was “consistent with recent observations and actions related to China announced by Facebook and Twitter.”
In Twitter’s announcement of the deletion of 936 accounts, the firm stated that it had “reliable evidence” that the disinformation campaign was “a coordinated state-backed operation” based in China. Facebook detected give accounts, seven pages, and three groups spreading similar disinformation and stated that the campaign had “links to individuals associated with the Chinese government.”
In July, Peter Thiel, the billionaire Silicon Valley investor, Facebook board member, and longtime supporter of President Donald Trump, called on the FBI and CIA to investigate Google for allegedly aiding the Chinese military during his speech at the recent National Conservatism Conference. During the speech, Thiel noted “three questions that should be asked” by the federal government of tech giant Google.
Number one, how many foreign intelligence agencies have infiltrated your Manhattan Project for AI?
Number two, does Google’s senior management consider itself to have been thoroughly infiltrated by Chinese intelligence?
Number three, is it because they consider themselves to be so thoroughly infiltrated that they have engaged in the seemingly treasonous decision to work with the Chinese military and not with the US military… because they are making the sort of bad, short-term rationalistic [decision] that if the technology doesn’t go out the front door, it gets stolen out the backdoor anyway?
Thiel added that these questions “need to be asked by the FBI, by the CIA, and I’m not sure quite how to put this, I would like them to be asked in a not excessively gentle manner.” President Trump has agreed to look into Thiel’s claims.