Google Walks Dangerous Tightrope Between Congress and China

Lawmakers could make life difficult for the search giant should it move forward with a new app promoting Chinese censorship and surveillance practices.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai appears before the House Judiciary Committee over the internet giant's privacy security and data collection Tuesday.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Dec. 11, 2018, 8 p.m.

During his appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai repeatedly stressed that his company’s proposal to deploy a new search engine in China is by no means a done deal.

“We have undertaken an internal effort, but right now there are no plans to launch a search service in China, necessarily,” Pichai said in response to questions from Democratic Rep. David Cicilline.

But when Cicilline asked Pichai to explicitly “rule out launching a tool for surveillance and censorship in China,” the Google executive demurred. “We always think it’s in our duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information,” Pichai said.

The exchange highlights the delicate balancing act that Google has been forced to perform since an August report from The Intercept revealed the existence of Project Dragonfly, the tech giant’s prototype for a search app that complies with China’s repressive online censorship and surveillance practices. Though Pichai was excruciatingly circumspect in his responses Tuesday, the final takeaway was clear—eight years after quitting China over the country’s human-rights violations, Google is looking to reap billions in ad revenue by bringing its search service back to the world’s largest marketplace.

But as Washington gears up for a wider conflict with both China and Silicon Valley, lawmakers are warning Google of serious consequences should it kowtow to the Chinese government’s demands. The company is already fending off an employee uprising over Project Dragonfly, and may struggle to weather any slings and arrows lobbed from Washington.

Some lawmakers are urging the company to back off or face blowback. “They will be enhancing the ability of the government to crack down on dissidents, crack down on free speech, crack down on human rights,” Cicilline told National Journal. “And it is completely inconsistent with the stated values of this company; it is inconsistent with American values. So I think we have to do everything we can to prevent them from doing it.”

Congress doesn’t have the best track record for following through on threats levied against powerful tech firms. But in this case, experts believe Washington has several tools at its disposal to punish Google, should it move forward with Project Dragonfly.

As anti-tech sentiment rises, legislation requiring a company’s foreign partners to respect online freedom could find a firmer footing than it has in the past. Concerns about Chinese espionage and theft of intellectual property have prompted a review of U.S. export controls, with potentially disastrous consequences for Google’s other Chinese operations. And as Congress mulls new rules on privacy and considers rolling back big tech’s liability protections, anything that angers lawmakers could come back to bite Google down the line.

Project Dragonfly is “certainly not going to help the perception of Google as a responsible, or not-so-responsible, actor on the Hill,” said Cynthia Wong, the senior internet researcher at Human Rights Watch.

While the exact contours of Project Dragonfly remain sketchy, leaks from disgruntled Google employees—some of whom have resigned in protest over the project—indicate that it’s being designed to conform with some of the Chinese government’s most repressive practices. Phrases such as “human rights,” “student protest,” and “Nobel prize” are reportedly blacklisted, as are derogatory phrases about Xi Jinping and other top officials of the Chinese Communist Party.

Perhaps more troubling, reports from current and former Google employees indicate that the app could allow Chinese officials to track an individual’s searches, further expanding the government’s surveillance powers. On Tuesday, lawmakers were unable to pin down Pichai on whether the prototype was developed with input from the Chinese government.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers have blasted Project Dragonfly, with Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Mark Warner leading the charge in the Senate. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy briefly testified ahead of Pichai on Tuesday, urging him to consider China’s repressive practices and asking him what has changed since the company pulled its search engine out of the country in 2010.

Should Google remain committed to the project, there’s little consensus on Capitol Hill over the next steps. “So far as what remedies exist from a legislative standpoint to address it, that’s something we still have to think through,” Rubio told reporters Thursday.

Some experts see an opening for a revival of the Global Online Freedom Act, a piece of legislation that’s languished on Capitol Hill for well over a decade. The bill would enhance Congress’s powers to censure tech companies that do business with repressive governments and restrict the transfer of sensitive technologies to those countries. While it hasn’t gained much traction in the past, Wong believes that Project Dragonfly—and rising worries over tech platforms more generally—could give it a boost.

“I do think there are legislative solutions,” said Cicilline, floating a potential bill modeled on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits U.S. businesses from bribing foreign officials.

Danny O’Brien, the international director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, echoed that comparison. “What we’re really looking for here is a know-your-customer model,” O’Brien said, “but a know-your-customer model when your customer is a foreign government.”

Google could also face stricter technology-export controls as a result of Project Dragonfly, a threat that McCarthy made explicit when referencing the “next generation” cloud-computing and artificial-intelligence technologies that the company has begun developing on Chinese soil—“technology that the administration considers a national priority.”

Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, thinks a tightening of export controls by Congress or the Commerce Department “can have a big impact on a company like Google, particularly as it relates to their ability to compete with foreign companies that are in this space.”

But perhaps the most dangerous aspect of Project Dragonfly for Google is the long-term ill will it could engender on Capitol Hill. With lawmakers set to take up legislation on both privacy and content liability in the next Congress, bipartisan anger over Google’s behavior abroad could cause Congress to throw the book at the search giant here at home.

“Over time, you’re either collecting a lot of allies or you’re collecting a lot of enemies,” Castro said. “And in some of these cases, it seems like the enemies are starting to grow quite large. And that is worrisome when it comes to other types of regulation or laws that might come down the line in the future.”

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