Alphabet should resist the urge to return to China

Alphabet’s code of conduct begins by saying that its employees should, “Do the right thing” — a variant on its subsidiary Google’s old slogan, “Don’t be evil”. Yet news that Google has stopped running adverts in China for two sites that review Virtual Private Networks throws that principle into question. It follows the revelation last year that the company was developing censored search tools for Chinese users. Google left China nearly a decade ago, rejecting the strict government filtering apparatus known as the Great Firewall. To support that pernicious system of control in order to return to the market would undermine the company’s reputation.

VPNs offer users some protection from state surveillance and allow them to access blocked websites. From 2017, VPN providers have needed licences to operate legally in China, as the government has tried to push both local users and international companies to use state-approved services.

Google’s statement that it has been “longstanding policy” to ban VPN-related adverts in China conflicts with claims by both affected sites that Google had previously carried their ads — in the case of one of them, for more than two years. Some academics and censorship monitors saw the move as Alphabet either failing to keep up with China’s rules, or deliberately attempting to act tough to gain the government’s favour.

Tech firms have a history of pandering to the People’s Republic despite the techno-libertarianism they often profess at home. In 2005, Yahoo admitted it had assisted Chinese authorities with the arrest of a local journalist, saying that it had no choice. In 2017, Apple removed hundreds of VPNs from the Chinese App Store stating it was following local regulations.

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Google itself censored content when it first launched its Chinese service in 2006. In 2008, a Chinese scholar and government opponent threatened to sue Google after it excised his name from searches.

Yet by 2010, amid a spate of cyber attacks which Google said originated in China, it stopped censoring its searches. A few months later, Google China was closed down.

Concerns over a possible return to China were stoked last year, when at least 1,400 employees signed a letter protesting against a censored mobile app under development, nicknamed Project Dragonfly. Soon after, Google’s chief privacy officer Keith Enright publicly confirmed Dragonfly’s existence, but said Google was “not close to launching a search product in China”.

This was the second high-profile U-turn Alphabet employees have forced the company to make, after a contract with the defence department was ended following a similar protest. A desire to avoid the moral conundrum of Chinese censorship should exist at the very top of the company. Last December, Google’s chief executive Sundar Pichai stated again that there were no current plans for a return to China, but did not rule out launching Dragonfly.

China is not the only challenge to Alphabet’s self-image as a force for good. The company has come under fire for the way it has dealt with sexual harassment allegations. During the past year, it has been fined €8.2bn for antitrust violations by the EU. Several companies pulled adverts from YouTube over concerns the site had been facilitating paedophile networks. Facilitating censorship in a return to China would be more egregious when Beijing is stepping up its crackdown on dissent. The lure of the market is clear, but Alphabet cannot ignore its code of conduct.

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