Google’s ambitions for China could trigger a crisis inside the companyAugust 18, 2018
On Thursday afternoon, a critical meeting at Google was derailed by a handful of tweets. Employees who had been pressing top executives for answers about the company’s plans to build a censored search engine and news app for the Chinese market appeared to have finally gotten their wish. Google cofounder Sergey Brin and CEO Sundar Pichai had taken the stage to address employees’ concerns. “We’ll definitely be transparent as we get closer to actually having a plan of record,” Pichai said, according to a report from The Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher.
Then employees noticed that executives’ words were being transcribed in real time by the New York Times’ Kate Conger, who had a source inside. Upon which an unidentified employee at the meeting went up to a microphone and did this, according to Business Insider’s Greg Sandoval:
”Fuck you,” said the male Google employee standing at the microphone during a pivotal moment at the company all-hands meeting on Thursday night.
According to three sources in attendance who spoke with Business Insider, the man was addressing whoever within Google was relaying what was said at the gathering in real time to a New York Times reporter. The reporter had posted statements to Twitter that had been made just minutes before by Google’s cofounder Sergey Brin and CEO, Sundar Pichai, and her tweets were displayed on a large screen before the gathering.
It was a dramatic turn of events, and it stopped the meeting in its tracks. Few details about the Chinese project were shared, and as Sandoval notes, it gave Brin and Pichai a good excuse to continue working on the Chinese project in secrecy.
But what the executives did say has raised some uncomfortable questions. (Gallagher has 13 of them for Google, all worth reading; we’ll limit ourselves to just a few.)
One, Pichai apparently characterized the nature of Google’s work in China as exploratory. Gallagher has previously reported that Google had plans to get the censored search engine — codenamed Dragonfly — into a “launch-ready state.” Maybe those things aren’t at odds — maybe something can be both launch-ready and exploratory — but Google appears to be much further down the road to relaunch in China than anyone acknowledged on Thursday.
Two, Brin said he had only recently become aware of Dragonfly. On one level, this would seem to strain credulity: Brin’s upbringing in the Soviet Union shaped his views on censorship and informed the company’s decision to exit the Chinese market in 2010. Launching an initiative to re-enter China without Brin’s express approval would seem to be a firing offense, even if Google is now a subsidiary of Alphabet and operating with less direct oversight. (Counterpoint: this is Sergey Brin we’re talking about! One of the world’s most eccentric billionaires. Yesterday he described Dragonfly as a “kerfuffle.” If you told me Brin had recently delegated all of his decision-making authority to a stack of pancakes, I would believe it.)
But while Google may have dodged a bullet on Thursday, I’m less certain than ever that the company can avoid a crisis without abandoning the project. China considers censorship a state secret, vastly restricting what Google can tell even its own employees about what its plans are. Meanwhile, a group of at least 1,400 employees is leading a charge to stop Dragonfly in its tracks.
Employees succeeded earlier this year in getting Google to stop working on a controversial project for the Pentagon. It’s hard to imagine employees successfully derailing a project to aid the American military and then failing to derail a project to aid the Chinese military. (The data generated by any Google service not being of at least some use to intelligence agencies.)
The thing I find myself wondering about the most here is what Sundar Pichai is thinking. Of the big tech-company CEOs, he is easily the kindest and most approachable. Taking Google to China — a China that is vastly more authoritarian than it was even when Google abandoned it the first time around — would require him to make compromises that will define his legacy.
The stock price would surely surge, but at the likely expense of any moral capital he hoped to spend for the rest of his career. It could also come at the expense of at least 1,400 employees, working on projects across the company.
On one hand, look at how naive we are — acting all surprised when we find out a giant corporation is in it for the money. But what happens when this new brute-capitalist version of Google finds out it’s not the company some of its most talented people signed up to work for?
The U.S. government wants to force Facebook to break the encryption in Messenger authorities can listen to a suspect’s voice conversations in a criminal probe, report Dan Levine and Joseph Menn:
The potential impact of the judge’s coming ruling is unclear. If the government prevails in the Facebook Messenger case, it could make similar arguments to force companies to rewrite other popular encrypted services such as Signal and Facebook’s billion-user WhatsApp, which include both voice and text functions, some legal experts said.
Law enforcement agencies forcing technology providers to rewrite software to capture and hand over data that is no longer encrypted would have major implications for the companies which see themselves as defenders of individual privacy while under pressure from police and lawmakers.
Fair housing groups have sued Facebook, saying its ad tools let landlords discriminate against women with children and other protected categories of people. Facebook sought to have the suit dismissed, saying that under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act it could not be held liable for landlords’ ads. But in a surprise move, the Justice Department argued that it potentially could be. The argument is essentially that its ad-targeting tools are so good they explicitly enable this kind of behavior:
Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, sided with the plaintiffs, noting Facebook “creates and harvests user data to develop profiles for each user, categorizing them into groups based on demographics, interests, behaviors and other criteria.”
Berman wrote, “The Complaint sufficiently alleges that, for purposes of housing advertisements, the categorizing of Facebook users based on protected characteristics, and the mechanism that Facebook offers advertisers to target those segments of the potential audience, violated the FHA.“
And speaking of microtargeting, Natasha Singer reports on regulators’ mounting concerns over Facebook’s impressive advertising tools:
Facebook is just one player among tech giants like Google and Twitter that also offer data-mining services to try to influence consumer and voter behavior. But Facebook’s gargantuan reach, vast holdings of user data and easy-to-use self-service advertising system have made it a lightning rod for political microtargeting.
Much of the new attention being paid to microtargeted advertising has emerged from investigations into how Russian groups interfered in elections and how the voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of millions of Facebook users. Microtargeting, they have found, was a central tool for foreign groups trying to interfere in elections.
Kurt Wagner examines Facebook’s battle readiness heading into the midterms. Here’s what Samidh Chakrabarti, product manager for all of Facebook’s election-related efforts, had to say:
“I feel like we have a good handle and a good plan for many of the problem types that we’re seeing. But whether we will get far enough, fast enough, is really the question,” he added. “It’s just a question of time. I would love if the U.S. midterms were in 2019.”
Alex Jones you absolute rascal! Elizabeth Williamson reports that the tweets Jones deleted to keep his Twitter account alive were part of the public record and not supposed to be tampered with. A real rock-and-a-hard-place situation for Jones:
At least some of the deleted content was considered evidence in the Sandy Hook cases, and Mr. Jones had been informed in writing in April that he was obligated by law to preserve all relevant material, according to the court filing in District Court in Travis County in Austin.
“As pressure mounted from pending defamation lawsuits and growing public indignation, Mr. Jones chose to destroy evidence of his actual malice and defamatory conduct,” the motion filed on Friday said. “Infowars deleted critical evidence at the precise moment plaintiff and his experts were attempting to marshal that evidence.”
I’ve mostly avoided sharing news about Elon Musk in this space, but as a case study in Never Tweet, the Tesla CEO has rapidly cleared a space for him in the Hall of Fame. I don’t want to make too much light of this — Musk appears to be struggling with serious health issues here — and yet it’s worth pointing out in column about social media just how much trouble his Twitter account is causing him. From the story by David Gelles, James B. Stewart, Jessica Silver-Greenberg, and Kate Kell:
In the interview, Mr. Musk added that he did not regret his Twitter post — “Why would I?” — and said he had no plans to stop using the social media platform. Some board members, however, have recently told Mr. Musk that he should lay off Twitter and focus on making cars and launching rockets, according to people familiar with the matter.
Smaller bra and underwear companies say Facebook unfairly bans their ads, saying they don’t comply with policies about “nudity and sexualization.” (Personally I have always found that bras help prevent nudity.)
Jeff White, co-founder and owner of Andrew Christian, a company that markets underwear to LGBTQ+ men, said via email that he sees the same inconsistencies in the ads his company submits to Facebook and Instagram. “Even using very specific targeting and very conservative images and language we probably only get 50% of our ads approved,” he says. Of those approved, around half are discontinued in the middle of the ad campaign, added White. The company has also had one of their ad accounts terminated entirely.
A group of advertisers are suing Facebook for misleading them about an ad’s “potential reach.” I am not a lawyer but I expect they will have a hard time that their ads could not “potentially” reach however many people Facebook said they could. It’s an ad! On the internet! Anyone could see it. Potentially.
The Committee to Protect Journalists asks Google not to pursue Dragonfly:
Still, by integrating its services with the Chinese model, Google risks enabling serious violations beyond censorship. According to Bloomberg, Google is also working to launch cloud services in China, including products like Google Drive and Google Docs. Cynthia Wong, a senior researcher on the internet and human rights at Human Rights Watch, said she is concerned the government could employ such products, which are commonly used by journalists, as a “honey pot” to surveil and even jail reporters and their sources. The state already combs through digital records to find citizens who challenge it: a 2017 investigation by The Wall Street Journal found Chinese authorities routinely use posts from the social media platform WeChat as evidence to prosecute dissent.
And finally …
Just how bad can a single tweet be? Matt Levine, in a string of commentaries about Elon Musk that ought to win him a Pulitzer next year, has my new favorite answer to this question:
Last week Musk infamously tweeted that he had “funding secured” for a buyout of Tesla at $420 per share; it has since come out that that was not, in the ordinary usage of those words, true. “In the interview, Mr. Musk added that he did not regret his Twitter post — ‘Why would I?’ — and said he had no plans to stop using the social media platform.” Why would he regret the tweet about going private? Because he is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission, is being sued by investors, and may well end up costing the company (or himself) hundreds of millions of dollars in damages? Tesla made about $588 million last quarter from selling cars; my rough estimate of the damages caused by Musk’s going-private tweet is at least $606 million. If the shareholder lawsuits settle for anything like that amount, then Musk’s tweet was as bad as shutting down the assembly line for three months. Sabotage!
There are bad tweets, there are worse tweets, and then there are tweets that cost your company $606 million. Personally I’m feeling much better about my own tweets lately!
Have a nice weekend.
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