Google has little choice to be evil or not in today’s fractured internet

Danny Crichton
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 3: The Google logo adorns the outside of their NYC office Google Building 8510 at 85 10th Ave on June 3, 2019 in New York City. Shares of Google parent company Alphabet were down over six percent on Monday, following news reports that the U.S. Department of Justice is preparing to launch an anti-trust investigation aimed at Google. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Well, we got to January 2nd before the latest angry resignation published by a tech executive on Medium.

Today’s installment comes from Ross LaJeunesse, who was head of international relations at Google and served for more than a decade in various roles at the company. He denounces what he sees as Google’s increasingly failed ambitions to be a company principled on human rights, and poses a series of questions about the future of tech and capitalism:

I think the important question is what does it mean when one of America’s marque’ companies changes so dramatically. Is it the inevitable outcome of a corporate culture that rewards growth and profits over social impact and responsibility? Is it in some way related to the corruption that has gripped our federal government? Is this part of the global trend toward “strong man” leaders who are coming to power around the globe, where questions of “right” and “wrong” are ignored in favor of self-interest and self-dealing? Finally, what are the implications for all of us when that once-great American company controls so much data about billions of users across the globe?

The whole read is interesting, and covers Google’s China operations, its Project Dragonfly censored search crisis, Saudi Arabia’s apps in Google Cloud and his own personal experience with Google HR.

Ex-Google policy chief dumps on the tech giant for dodging human rights


It’s a manifesto of sorts, and perhaps that isn’t surprising, given that LaJeunesse is also running for the Democratic primary in Maine’s senatorial election to compete against Republican incumbent Susan Collins. His critiques of Big Tech seem to be channeling Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), and that makes it a fascinating political strategy.

But let’s focus in on the key question at the heart of this debate: does Google have the ability to be “good” or “evil” when it comes to tech’s influence on society? Does it have agency to make a difference on human rights in countries around the world?

My answer is: Google used to have a lot of agency, which is unfortunately declining very, very rapidly.

I’ve talked about the fracturing of the internet into different spheres of influence for quite literally years. Countries like China in particular, but also Russia, Iran and others, are seizing more and more exacting control of the internet’s plumbing and applications, subsuming the original internet’s spirit of openness and freedom and placing this communications medium under their iron fists.

As this fracturing has occurred, companies like Google, or Shutterstock, or even the NBA, have increasingly faced what I've called an “authoritarian straddle” — they can either work with these countries and follow the local rules, or they can just get out, with serious ramifications for their home markets.

The NBA should learn from Google China


Those are the extent of the choices these companies have. Shutterstock is not going to change China’s policy toward photos of the Tiananmen Square protests any more than Google can try to launch a search engine on the mainland or change Saudi Arabia's deplorable women's rights.

To have any agency here at all, you need a monopoly on a product or service so important that the dictatorship has to accept the terms you offer. In other words, these companies need extreme leverage, essentially the ability to go to the regimes and say, “No, fuck you, here’s how it is going to work, we’re going to follow human rights, and you have no choice in the matter.”

What tech companies are discovering — even massive giants like Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft — is that they really, truly don’t have that kind of leverage in these countries anymore. Not even Apple, which employs hundreds of thousands of manufacturing workers through its subcontractors in China, can move the needle in that country anymore. Iran shut off the internet for a period of time to dampen the intensity of political protests in that country. Russia last week tested shutting off the internet to make sure it can just pull the plug when it wants.

Iran shuts down country’s internet in the wake of fuel protests


If whole countries can just flip the switch and turn off “tech,” exactly what leverage do any of these companies have in the first place?

And that diminution of power is a trend that tech companies, and particularly American tech companies, haven’t fully grappled with. They don’t really get a choice anymore in the decisions here. China has its own search engine, and increasingly, its own mobile phone ecosystem unencumbered by U.S. patents -- and therefore U.S. policy. If Azure leaves Saudi Arabia, Alibaba Cloud is more than willing to step into the gap and make the money instead.

So when you get to LaJeunesse’s comments that he pushed Google internally to formalize some of its values:

My solution was to advocate for the adoption of a company-wide, formal Human Rights Program that would publicly commit Google to adhere to human rights principles found in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, provide a mechanism for product and engineering teams to seek internal review of product design elements, and formalize the use of Human Rights Impact Assessments for all major product launches and market entries.

… one can’t help but feel solace for an optimistic world where a better product design review process might have once improved global human rights.

The issue is far simpler though than it was in the past. You don’t need a human rights protocol, or some sort of review process for market entry. You are either in, or you are out. You either launch in these countries and deal with the inevitable human rights abuses and concomitant consumer protests in the home market, or you maintain your values and you walk away, ignoring the profit mirage from these regimes in the process.

That’s why I recently argued that Google and the NBA should just walk away. I still hold that belief. It’s also why I called on Shutterstock to leave China and return to its more open and free values. No U.S. tech company today has the leverage to make a dent on human rights the way they did a decade ago. The internet has fractured, data sovereignty is on the rise and there’s a binary choice to be made whether to engage or to flee. Ultimately, I take LaJeunesse’s side — these companies should walk, because there really isn’t much choice otherwise.

GDPR, China and data sovereignty are ultimately wins for Amazon and Google