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Leaked Transcript Contradicts Google’s Official Story on China (theintercept.com)
388 points by jbegley 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 160 comments

Wow, reading this article and some of the other linked Intercept articles, in my mind the culture at Google has finally hit a tipping point, having gone full-bore over to the "evil" side.

I know most folks on HN will think "Google has been this way for years", but I think the way The Intercept articles describe the erosion of the culture at Google is a perfect template for how virtually all large profit driven companies eventually turn "evil". It's the added secrecy that can be rationalized at first, the stretched gray areas (e.g. "we're just in an exploratory phase") that eventually cross over to full-fledged lies, but you're still able to convince yourself it's just a little "spin" for the greater good.

The really hard thing about "not being evil" is that in requires conscious, continuous effort to forgo profit (sometime huge profits) to adhere to that value. The lure of the Chinese market is simply too great, so people convince themselves it's possible to get at that potential market without compromising their values, and they do lots of mental gymnastics trying to get those opposing ideals into congruence.

I've seen this pattern many times before, honestly with much lower stakes than what Google is contending with, so I applaud Google for holding out as long as they did. This is one reason I hate talking about "company values": it's easy to adhere to those values when they're not in conflict with the company making money, but the second there is a quarter to hit or a metric at risk, those values always seem to go out the window (or at least get vastly watered down) in the pursuit of profit. I think it's pretty inevitable, and I wish companies would just admit to it.

do you remember a few years ago when CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) was all the rage? thank god it's disappeared for the most part. i made it a point to not pursue or do business with companies that put forward a CSR agenda. it's such hypocratic BS, to be dropped as soon as inconvenient. it's a sign that the company is itself a lie.

anyway, back on point, the turning point for google wasn't gradual, it was sharp. yes they danced around china before -- i'd say this was required of them, you can't properly say no if you don't assess -- but they stood up to their values. it's ok that there were other factors.

no, the turning point was when they hired ruth porat. ask any insider. that's when it became all about the benjamins.

How can you say they became ruthless at the exact moment they hired Ruth? Aren't they now ruthful?


Throws tomato

> no, the turning point was when they hired ruth porat. ask any insider. that's when it became all about the benjamins.

I've heard this before, but never gotten any details. Can you expand on this?

I personally divide Google into 3 eras and the pre-era.

Pre-era was a bunch of elite college kids who were in the right place at the right time, in the right business, technical and social environment, to create a masterpiece. Such an intersection of factors is unlikely to occur again. (If for no other reason, that we likely have about 20 years left on this planet.) Omid Kordestani was the adult in the room at the time, and he let the kids run feral. It was probably as much his style as it was that he was already successful (in the SV sense) and relaxed.

Then you have the Eric Schmidt / George Reyes era. Reyes was from Lifelock, which tells you his caliber. But, a good team for an IPO. Lucky for Google, Hal Varian was there too.

They outgrew Reyes and hired Patrick Pichette, formerly from McKinsey and Bell Canada. I think it's often overlooked that he came from a monopoly and Google was on its way (and desire) to become a monopoly and of course sought to avoid even the light touch of the Clinton Justice Department (I refer to the MS anti-trust case).

All through this time, everyone and I mean everyone wanted to work at Google. They were big enough to be a real company but not yet big enough that beers and toys weren't a fixture around every corner of every building. It was still a work hard, play hard culture and (outside of AdWords and classism that was starting to arise out of red badge ism) technology driven and egalitarian.

Under Pichette they bought Motorola for the patent portfolio and a culture of lying to the public, and most importantly internally to employees began. To be fair, the lying was required to pull off the Motorola strategy, but it was at this time that the us (executive suite) vs them (middle mgmt and ICs) really began. It was then that the Google became IBM. BTW, if you met any Googlers of this era, you were more likely to find them to be full of themselves than googlers of previous eras which is ironic because these googlers were replaceable cogs, vs earlier googlers.

So, with IBM^H^H^HGoogle now wearing big boy pants they needed a real CFO, one that could believe his own bullshit when entertaining bankers (who believe their own bullshit). Google was now so powerful and wealthy that the compulsion for more power and more wealth was all consuming. When you're on top, you want to stay on top and you maneuver to do so. Google was already a technology powerhouse but that wouldn't be enough. Do keep in mind that Schmidt had/has aspirations of true political power, so this surely was a guiding force in this evolution. (And besides, the right move considering the goals.)

So they brought in a CFO's CFO, a true Wall Street player. Then they formed Alphabet. Why, oh why? To bring costs under control. Google doesn't care about costs. A few million here, a few million there, the technology playboy dream team don't care about such insignificant sums, but Wall Street does. So Porat maneuvered them into this awkward structure so that she could trim fat. And boy was Google fat.

Oh, and she removed don't be evil from their vocabulary. Very, very smart Wall Street move. Of course Google had always reserved the definition of evil for themselves to make, but this needlessly tied their hands or at least caused contortions when exploring the most lucrative market of all -- China. To be fair, Porat was right. Google is a megacorp. Megacorps should not have morals as such and they should indeed pursue all revenue (and tax structures etc.)

Internally, it became very hard to just start a project on a whim. Budget had before been of little concern, now it became primary.

There is still resistance and some inertia. I find it very very interesting that Google Home, a project doomed to failure from the beginning, was allowed to happen and is still allowed. And that Nest is still completely mismanaged. I believe this is because Porat is not a technologist. The obvious synergies that I see with those products, and the Google/Android ecosystem, aren't visible to Porat.

So you can see, Google is now a finance-driven company, not technology-driven. Starting in 2015.

Interesting take. I would've divided the eras up very differently, though:

1998-2001: Pre-history. Urs Hoezle is the adult in the room. (Remember that Google was an engineering-driven organization early in its history; sales followed easily because they had a monopoly position on a critical portion of the Internet.) Culture is very much a scrappy startup, with everybody doing everything. Employees are young, idealistic, driven, and drawn to the company primarily by curiosity.

2001-2004: Consolidation in their primary market and experiments in others. Eric Schmidt is the adult in the room. The company is largely focused on milking the Search/AdWords cash cow and scaling at this point, but this was also the period where DejaNews, Blogger, and Keyhole were acquired, and Google Groups, Orkut, GMail, and Google Maps were developed internally. This was the era when all the incredible engineering talent was hired, because it was the dot-com bust when nobody else was hiring and everyone else was getting laid off, and Google was the only place doing really technically interesting stuff. Ended with the IPO, the launch of GMail and Maps, and the start of large-scale college hiring in 2005.

2005-2011: Diversification. This was the period where whatever Internet-based market you were in, you could bet that Google was developing a competitor or 4. Eric Schmidt was still the adult in the room. Company is very open and transparent internally, with lots of freedom to build your own pet projects. Teams are bigger with many more Nooglers because of the company's rapid growth (at least until 2009, when Google stopped hiring for 2 years). Focus is on exploiting all the great infrastructure and data that had been built. This era featured the launch or acquisition of Maps, Earth, Docs, Sheets, Presentations, Chat, Street View, Universal Search, Android, Chrome, Wave, Buzz, YouTube, and many other key properties. CFO changes in 2008, but there isn't a major change in culture until 2011.

2011-2014: Social era. Larry Page is the adult in the room. Google+ and Vic Gundotra wield outsize influence on the company, with company bonuses tied to the success of Google+ and Google+ having the ability to ask for integrations with any other property and get it. This was the time when the culture & brand started decaying - more project silos, more secrecy, more management by fiat rather than by consensus, and more decisions taken that damaged user trust or harmed the user experience for "strategic" reasons. Innovation is moved over to Google X, which often starved the product teams of their most innovative employees. Many large acquisitions, including Motorola and Nest. Hiring ramps back up, but most employees hired are typical big-company employees that are paid to do a job and not look around too much.

2015-present: Financial era. Sundar Pichai & Ruth Porat are the adults in the room. Company is restructured as Alphabet and Larry moves upstairs. Google itself is more focused on meeting its bottom-line targets, and is run more for efficiency than innovation. Also a focus on monetizing some of the Google X moonshots. Cloud becomes a big moneymaker, Google+ is shut down.

I'm curious - did you ever work for Google or were otherwise an insider? Your view is very much an outsider's perspective, focused on the CFO and big mergers rather than the culture, values, and projects. I was there from 2009-2014, and worked directly with people who were there from the Stanford days, and still have friends there. In my view there was a big culture change in 2011 when Larry became CEO, but the first half of the Pichette years (09-11) were culturally the same as the period that came before, just with fewer perks and less hiring because we were in the midst of the financial crisis. All of the milestones you cite from the Pichette years were actually post-2011, and IMHO are more a consequence of Larry taking over from Eric.

I like your history but it reads like what an insider IC "feels" like the company is doing and based on personal motivations and successes, rather than visible corporate manifestations. I am not an insider but I have had friends there since 2009 and know the skinny on such things as ski trip shenanigans, disney, hawaii, OC awards come and gone, Ruth the Christmas Grinch and so on, so I feel like I have a reasonable enough grasp of the culture, past and present.

> 2015-present: Cloud becomes a big moneymaker

I doubt that. Google is 4th and is trying very very very hard to catchup. Cloud is Google's "Microsoft mobile" moment[1], they let this get past them. It's because they didn't have the correct biz people at the time that first-mover advantage was to be had. Because Google is playing catch-up, they are spending lots and lots of money to catchup. They announced $1bn/quarter in revenue but what is their spend? Their growth rate (not announced) is likely not nearly as good as the top 3 either. The fact that they are being very disingenuous about their pulling out of the DoD bid is telling enough.

I think actually MS is going to win the cloud wars, say in 3 years time. They have a huge advantage.

That said, IMHO (as outsider), Cloud is the best part of google to be in, if you must work there. Besides all the other good points about it, it's not ad revenue driven. Urs is a real ball buster but no one reading this is going to be within a skip level of him anyway.

[1] vs social, which they just botched

> I think actually MS is going to win the cloud wars, say in 3 years time. They have a huge advantage.

Interesting! I work in Azure myself, but personally I'm more worried about Google than Amazon. K8s/GKE and TF were brilliant strategic moves, and they've finally figured out how to leverage their internal infrastructure with things like BigQuery and TPUs. Next battle will be serverless, and I see Google doing well there (since they're such PaaS-addicts.)

But I don't see one cloud to rule them all ever becoming likely. We'll all carve out our niches - AWS for cheap and boring, MS for nice plumbing and enterprise, Google for data science and web apps.

This sounds right to me.

In particular the, "Oh shit, Facebook!" moment that resulted in a top-down pushing of Google+ everywhere was a big (and negative) shift in corporate culture.

>" It was still a work hard, play hard culture and (outside of AdWords and classism that was starting to arise out of red badge ism)."

What does this mean? Could you elaborate? Do the color of badges indicate a class?

>(If for no other reason, that we likely have about 20 years left on this planet.)

Can you elaborate on this? You're thinking nuclear holocaust? Climate Change? Food scarcity? Astronomical event? Return of Jesus?

The reason I ask is that I don't share this same concern, or at the very least estimation of when such an event might occur.

CSR? The one and only "social responsibility" they have is to get the benjamins. Wishing for the corporate money machine to root out evil or educate the poor or champion gay rights or take whatever political stance you like (or regulate itself, ha!) is completely delusional and in fact counterproductive in the long run.

>when they hired ruth porat

Don't forget Diane Greene. She is the exact anti-thesis of the original Google culture.

yes thank you. Greene was also a very important hire for Google, both company direction and culture wise. I don't know much about her and her influence though, can you elaborate at all?

This person is from VMWare? Why was this culturally important?

Minor nitpick:

> it's such hypocratic BS ...

You mean hypocritical. And the oath would be spelled Hippocratic.

Well, she also was born in a town called Sale :-D

I think “company values” only makes sense if there’s a solid rationale behind it for how it helps you make money.

For example, “don’t cut corners” by itself is easily lost. “Our reputation for high quality products creates loyal customers and allows us to set higher prices” will be more durable. It’s not perfect by any means, but it helps.

I don’t recall Google ever having a rationale for how “don't be evil” helped them make money, either explicitly or implicitly. It was just a fun little thing they had.

> I don’t recall Google ever having a rationale for how “don't be evil” helped them make money, either explicitly or implicitly.

Google's success depends entirely on user trust. If users aren't comfortable having Google accounts, having Google host their email, typing their deepest desires into the search box, taking private photos on their Android phone and uploading them to Google's cloud, then there is no Google.

"Don't be evil" is about being a good enough company that users trust you.

Right, but is there any indication that they understand this? Keep in mind that "don't be evil" originated well before people entrusted Google with their e-mails and photos and all that. (I don't think search is considered invasive enough for most people to care about that one.)

I don't think search is considered invasive enough for most people to care about that one

A person's search history is a window into their very soul, it is possibly the most sensitive thing Google has on you.

Trust is one of those things that is asymmetrically visible. It's very easy to not notice the many many times a person or organization is trustworthy and only see the instances where they are not.

Right, but is there any indication that they understand this?

This seems like a hard question for a discussion thread, what kind of answer are you looking for?

There could be some leaked transcripts where they discuss it. Or other internal documents, or a pattern of behavior where they give up easy wins in favor of keeping the trust of their users.

Their search share continues to increase and now over 92%. Does that represent them being more trusted?

http://gs.statcounter.com/search-engine-market-share Search Engine Market Share Worldwide ...

That search engine share chart is becoming increasingly irrelevant because it doesn't count searches performed on Facebook or other walled gardens. More and more content is being locked away, invisible to Google.

I think “company values” only makes sense if there’s a solid rationale behind it for how it helps you make paperclips.

It's precisely this pattern that sours me on the recent "corporate social responsibility" trend. If all that's standing between our society and dystopia is the strenuous objections of a few employees, we're going to get a dystopia. Even if the individuals that comprise a corporation are decent human beings, the emergent behavior of the corporate egregore inexorably trends toward evil.

Now, I'm very far from saying we should ban corporations. They're quite useful, for all the reasons classical economics tells us. But we should stop expecting them to be moral. Instead, let's just accept that the object of a corporation is to maximally profit within the law, then use the law to constrain corporate behavior while retaining corporate benefits.

The state is the only entity powerful enough to go toe-to-toe against the profit motive and win. Activists, however well-intentioned, just don't have the firepower.

If I can proffer an opinion that's probably unpopular: I think prominent CSR activism is probably harmful on a net basis. It accrues attention to itself and deprives more serious efforts, ones that operate at the level of the law, of oxygen. If you want to change how corporations behave, change their incentives.

To my mind Google was able to "not evil" while they were the only big player in online ads. Then Facebook showed up and started threatening Googles revenue. They had to play catch up e.g Google Plus and a general race to the bottom ensued.

I'm curious why HN users don't seem to have a problem with Apple censoring the App Store on demand, blocking VPNs and other crypto tools which have real life consequences for some in China. Seems like they get a pass for operating in China (and earning huge yearly revenues from it, which would obviously be threatened if they didn't comply) Is this just a grandfathering in? If Google had never left China and merely obeyed censorship requests in 2010, would people be less upset because they've been acclimatized to it?

I don't support Dragonfly, and I do fear the allure of the Chinese market is influencing people to put aside ethical quandaries for revenue growth, but it seems to me that standards are different for different companies.

> I'm curious why HN users don't seem to have a problem [...]

I do and always have. I also have a problem with their silence concerning relinquishing control of iCloud DCs there too. I avoid Apple products due to their anti-developer, opaque, and money-above-all approaches.

> it seems to me that standards are different for different companies.

Exactly. And countries. So I try not to draw any reaction equivalence except in personal preference. People's outrage is more a product of who they like most at any given time, often driven by narratives in the press/community. All you can do is be consistent with yourself and don't get too whataboutist when these double standards rear their heads.

The censorship aspect is a red herring. Google is giving the government the infrastructure to identify candidates for "re-education" via their Google searches. Is Apple funneling dissidents to the government via their app store?

The answer is, we don't know, Apple is a much more secretive company with far fewer leaks. But Apple does tens of billions in revenue a year in China, and it's entire edifice is built on Chinese manufacturing, and so there is the potential for tremendous leverage by Chinese authorities. If China asked Apple to provide a list of accounts which downloaded VPNs in Xinjiang, are you 100% confident they wouldn't if threatened with sanctions? Perhaps it's even via a plausibly deniable mechanism, like buying keyword targeting on the Chinese app store, and phishing people to fraudulent apps in a 'sting', while you look at other way.

There's enough money involved that anyone should seriously question how strong an executive's ethics can be if they've got a $1 trillion market cap to defend. I'm not saying any company is superior to the other, I'm saying the allure of tens of billions of dollars is a powerful motivator for weakening of ethics, and I wouldn't even trust Edward Snowden's ethics if tens of billions was on the line.

I get that you are trying to sow doubt, but consider:

>The memo, authored by a Google engineer who was asked to work on the project, disclosed that the search system, codenamed Dragonfly, would require users to log in to perform searches, track their location — and share the resulting history with a Chinese partner who would have “unilateral access” to the data.


When you discover a memo like that for Apple, feel free to share it with us.

We haven't discovered memos like this from Microsoft either, but we know Microsoft works with governments. AT&T installed backdoors for governments, and no memo was leaked.

Google is a much more leaky organization, with vocal employees, and not very good at internal compartmentalization, and that's why you know about these things. We used to consider a bug if an employee can't 'see everything' everyone else is working on.

Is lack of whistle blowers elsewhere a sign that there's no whistles to blow, or a sign that oppressive security and compartmentalized security at other firms makes it hard for the public to find out?

My point is, transparency is good, and that more secrecy doesn't buy you trust. That's why people value open source and used to pretty much rail against closed source HW on HN. Now we seem to be an in era where closed source and locked down DRM app stores that block side loading are accepted.

Apple's ethical lapses have all been on the supply-side.

Rare-earth mining, contributing to serious environmental problems in China:



(Apple stopped mining rare-earth minerals in China in 2017, 7 years after the NYTimes story broke.)

Child labor, with teenagers working 11-hour days to assemble your iPhone X:


Child-labor in the mining of rare-earths:


These are not Apple’s ethical lapses - they are the failure of an entire industry. An industry, it’s worth noting, that Apple has been extremely transparent about, and has worked to fix. Also worth noting that Apple’s suppliers have improved dramatically in recent years - something that can’t be said about most other manufacturers.


Imagine the outrage if Google stored user data in a datacenter run by a company controlled by the Chinese government.

Apple pulled an amazing PR coup in convincing us that they somehow respect privacy more than Google.

Not to mention the iCloud celebrity photo leak caused by not using 2FA to protect user data; only to prevent fraudulent credit card transactions. Maybe this is more a question of not being as skilled at cloud services than something deliberate, but it makes no difference to users whose data leaks.

Apple detects whether a Chinese user uses the Taiwanese flag emoji[1] in order to corrupt its display. Nothing is stopping them from pinging back home when a Chinese citizen says or reads the wrong words.

[1] https://9to5mac.com/2018/07/11/apple-china-taiwan-flag/

But they have not hired a team of 300 engineers to notify the government of the use of the emoji. Apple still uses the Secure Enclave in the iPhone in China. Apple still end-to-end encrypts most data sent to iCloud with the Enclave.

Google and Apple's products here are so disparate in how they infringe on user privacy that the comparison isn't even warranted.

iCloud data for Chinese users is stored in China on servers owned by a Chinese company. Chinese law requires this and apple complies.

Again, this is irrelevant if the data contained is E2E encrypted by the Secure Enclave.

data in iCloud servers is NOT encrypted. Apple has provided it to law enforcement on request. They are quite open about it.

What we know is Apple gave the iCloud data to the China government and removed the VPN software. Versus China government tried to hack Gmail accounts and Google left China and walked from making billions.

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/02/5-things-you-... When Profits Threaten Privacy – 5 Things You Need to Know about ...

https://www.ft.com/content/ad42e536-cf36-11e7-b781-794ce08b2... Apple drops hundreds of VPN apps at Beijing's request

https://www.androidauthority.com/using-google-fi-in-china-85... Using Project Fi in China: Say goodbye to VPNs - Android Authority

>"I'm curious why HN users don't seem to have a problem with Apple censoring the App Store on demand, blocking VPNs and other crypto tools which have real life consequences for some in China."

Pulling an App from the App store is nowhere near the same as building a tool to satisfy the CCP. I get it you're a Google employee and want to defend them but this is nothing more than a red herring and an equivalency fallacy. It sound like you've really drank the Mountain View Kool-aid.

If I were to rationalize this, it would be that the App Store is a platform that Apple hosts and curates. Google indexes content that Google does not host or curate outside of responding algorithmically to specific input.

I do think if Google hadn't left, it would probably have been more normalized by now.

I think I'd be a lot more critical of Apple if, for example, the Chinese government got a special ability to unlock iDevices, if they already have this, I'm not well informed, so feel free to let me know.

Its pretty widely believed that the Chinese government can and has accessed Chinese Citizens' iCloud accounts before [1]. (I work at Google).

[1]: https://www.theverge.com/2018/7/18/17587304/apple-icloud-chi...

Quite a bit of data in iCloud is E2E encrypted with device-based Secure Enclave. This doesn't seem like much of an issue.

Outside of China yes. If China is asking people to install Jingwangweishi (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jingwang_Weishi) under threat of fine or jail on Android devices, why do you think they would allow a simple, legal workaround to be "Just buy an iPhone!"

That is, China sets up elaborate domestic surveillance, deep packet inspection everywhere, asks citizens to install apps which backdoors their phones to scanning and logging, and all you need to do to thwart it is buy an Apple device? Does that sound like something they would willingly permit?

That would be like the US congress passing a law requiring Key Escrow, and every device manufacturer on the market complying, but if you just buy a Xiaomi phone, you can bypass it.

How likely do you think there's no special alteration to how iCloud encryption works in China?

Why Amnesty International is upset with Apple and the human rights abused with giving the data to the government.

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/02/5-things-you-... When Profits Threaten Privacy – 5 Things You Need to Know about ...

But also removing the VPN software.

https://www.ft.com/content/ad42e536-cf36-11e7-b781-794ce08b2... Apple drops hundreds of VPN apps at Beijing's request

Apple has been openly evil for most of its existence.

When they keep on being evil (within the boundaries of the law), no one flinches, it's business as usual, and the Apple fanboys keep on submitting to being mistreated by their favorite toy-maker so they can keep on secretly caressing their shiny new Iphones in their bed at night.

But back in the days, Google set the moral bar for themselves very, very high.

Now that they are openly failing to meet their own standard, the world is sorely disappointed.

From my perspective, I don't recall Apple's motto ever being "Don't be evil". I expect Apple to make the call that will generate the most revenue for them as my baseline assumption.

Honest question:

Google working on project Dragonfly, a service that-according to the article: 'would blacklist phrases like “human rights,” “student protest,” and “Nobel Prize.”'

People are (rightly) bothered by this.

Facebook and Twitter tell Alex Jones to pound sand.

People argue "Private corporations don't have to give anyone a platform".

I'm not here to promote the idea that the members of the first group are automatically members of the second, some overlap could probably be found...probably.

Why does the first get so much coverage and ultimately ending up in The Intercept with an inferred tone of apoplectic disappointment-and in some cases-anger towards Google, but coverage of the latter seems to be glee, jubilation and almost schadenfreude?

Note that I'm not making any sort of value judgments about Alex Jones' politics or statements, suggesting that I agree with his views, or that even that he may be right about gay frogs (this really shouldn't have to be said, it should be painfully obvious but I'm covering my ass out of trained habit: unless one explicitly says "I am not supporting this person", someone will come out of the woodwork and make the association because it's easier to debate). I'm pointing to actions of corporations and our responses to them: between the two things here, I'm hard pressed to find a difference beyond a matter of scale between what Google is doing and what Facebook and Twitter have already done.

> Google working on project Dragonfly, a service that-according to the article: 'would blacklist phrases like “human rights,” “student protest,” and “Nobel Prize.”'

> People are (rightly) bothered by this.

> Facebook and Twitter tell Alex Jones to pound sand.

> People argue "Private corporations don't have to give anyone a platform".

One of the two actions you listed results in the families of school shooting victims getting harassed by Alex Jones social media following less and the other enables the imprisonment, torture and execution of millions of people in China.

An accurate assessment, though I'm not sure if what I'm to take away from this is if there's some sort of 'ranking' system behind who gets to get away with what when it comes to 1) disagreeable speech 2) who is allowed to respond to it and how 3) who gets to decide what speech is promulgated and what speech is hidden.

In the Google case, I find objections to suppressing information from the citizenry at the behest of government forces.

In the Alex Jones case, I also find objections to harassing...well anyone who isn't themselves trying to agitate and disturb (don't start no s--- there wont be no s--- kind of thinking).

So I posit this question: why is one weightier than the other in how we view and analyze them, again? Being as dispassionate as possible, I fall back to my prior statement: taken at face value it seems like the major differences here boil down to scale. Project Dragonfly casts a wide net over the question of accessing information, whereas the banishment of Jones is more localized and pointed.

> Being as dispassionate as possible

Perhaps this is the issue? I know many of us software engineers hate to hear this, but... not everything can be rationalized down to cold, hard algorithms.

Most reasonable people with a shred of empathy would gladly ban censorship in China but also ban Alex Jones. Why? Because empathy tells us what is right and what is wrong.

Empathy is required to make many decisions, and ridding yourself of it in an effort to become more dispassionate does not always make you more correct.

This isn't a cold hard algorithm, and my dispassionate stance here doesn't mean I'm lacking empathy-given the specific context I've brought up: there is no decision tree here being pondered.

It's also not an endeavor to be correct about the matter.

This is an attempt to objectively understand what appears to be an interesting dichotomy in popular responses to who we allow to be the gatekeepers of disseminated information and opinion, and what (un)enumerated power we tacitly give them.

The difference is intolerance. I don't think the problem with Alex Jone's is the subject matter or beliefs but the advocation of violence and spread of intolerance, hate, and misinformation. Freedom of speech is not without reasonable restriction. You cannot yell "fire" in a crowded movie theater without punishment.

Silencing Jones on these platforms in my opinion amounts to good housekeeping allowing others to actually express their opinions without manipulation. Part of an intellectually open and honest society is banishing those who seek to manipulate it.

You're conflating two entirely different things. Yelling fire in a crowded theater isn't an issue of speech, that's an act of violence. You're attempting harm upon people. Once you step into the realm of acts of initiating violence, you've crossed out of matters of free speech, they're two different things and must be addressed differently.

If I take out a bullhorn and blast it into someone's ear, harming their eardrum, that's also not a matter of speech, it's an act of violence against that person.

Holding someone down and painting a swastika on their chest is also not a matter of speech, that too is an act of violence, for the exact same conceptual reason as the bullhorn and yelling fire are.

Disgusting speech should be protected. The absolute worst thing you can do, is try to bury that type of speech under laws. The US culture defeated the KKK - which was once large and influential at its peak - precisely because the realm of debate and ideas was firmly held open. Their speech and ideology was not outlawed, their ideas overwhelmingly lost in the public cultural debate. Extremely liberal free speech protections are why the KKK couldn't win then, and haven't managed to resuscitate themselves in the last 30 or 40 years.

There's a difference between disgusting speech and hate speech. I like that you use the KKK as an example. In your world view, do you tolerance a bunch of people marching through the streets screaming: "Kill 'em all"?

It's obviously a gray area but you should read up on the paradox of tolerance. The only logical solution for a tolerant society is to be intolerant of tolerance.

I am all for that, as long as it's the other intolerants that are not tolerating, right?

I've since come to the conclusion that it's mostly pointless to talk about "tolerance" and that it's the individual acts of intolerance that should be addressed on a case by case basis.

But the Chinese government is famously intolerant, and spreads misinformation and hate all the time (hate towards various groups, some of them ethnic some of them ideological).

They consider silencing of various people to be good housekeeping as well.

iamdave is correctly pointing out the hypocrisy here. Well, hypocrisy of some. Not everyone celebrated Alex Jones getting kicked off SV platforms.

> You cannot yell "fire" in a crowded movie theater without punishment.

Fortunately, you can still yell "Theatre!" in a crowded fire though.

Facebook is a legitimate issue as it pertains to the Alex Jones style censorship, because they have a massive, entrenched monopoly over a very important communication / expression corner of US society and many parts of the globe. It's an important question as to whether Facebook should ever be allowed to ban a person from their platform, or whether it's a public square that should be forced open to all. Note, that's not the same as saying Facebook shouldn't be allowed to censor certain narrow types of content that violate the law. Those posts should be deleted, the rest should be left alone. If it's questionably offensive speech, it'd be easy enough to restrict it to adults, or require an acknowledgement to view it; some form of one to one privatization restriction of the exchange, rather than mass distribution, for that type of content.

If someone like Jones wants to be an idiot that pushes conspiracies about gay frogs, or Obama being an alien, they should be allowed to - if society deems Facebook something akin to a utility that everyone should have access to.

Alternatively, break Facebook up into pieces and end the monopoly.

Twitter is not so much an issue. They're a modest player when it comes to market share in social. Maybe 3% to 5% the size of Facebook in regards to true reach and influence (not just supposed daily or monthly actives).

If Twitter wants to be biased against conservatives, it's not nearly as big of a deal as people being banned for life from Facebook. Wikipedia recently stripped all Breitbart stories from their site (re sources/references), with a target of doing the same to Fox News next. Is that a big deal? Not so much, it's similar to Twitter's left bias when it comes to allowing hate speech and racism from the left, and banning or locking accounts on the right for trivial things. It's just not that important, Wikipedia is influential but has no monopoly on knowledge.

The solution to Twitter's bias, is the DOJ should sue them and make them enforce their terms of service for all parties equally (rather than allowing one side to freely issue death threats, racism, hate speech, etc. without having accounts get suspended or banned), which they're refusing to do right now. Levy increasing fines against them until they enforce their terms of service for all users equally. Problem solved.

The solution to Twitter's bias, is the DOJ should sue them and make them enforce their terms of service for all parties equally (rather than allowing one side to freely issue death threats, racism, hate speech, etc. without having accounts get suspended or banned), which they're refusing to do right now.

Taken in whole with everything else you just said, are you suggesting (even if I'm not sure if I necessarily agree this is something that should reach the level of the DoJ) that Twitter gets this treatment as a precedent setting maneuver to push the others into getting in line?

If, as you say Facebook has an 'entrenched monopoly[...]over communication', why in your opinion should the DOJ go after the company you've also argued has up to a 5th the size of Facebook's reach and influence? Bigger fish, frying pan, etc, if you catch my drift.

Power Corrupts. Control is Power.

They were at one point neutral and uncompromising in their principles even if it excludes them from a market, fighting for freedom of speech and being against censorship, trying to provide the best information whatever it concludes.

They now impose their biases, believe the power consumer doesn't know best and thus change the interfaces of their products removing advanced options or open standards, have biases in their search results, and are trying to make the world conform to their ideals where possible, or compromise principles and submit to illiberal societies if it means market access.

> believe the power consumer doesn't know best

to be fair, often they don't

but then neither does google.

Better to be the ones censoring over a billion internet users than to miss out on that sweet sweet profit

lol if any of these employees think they will be protected from the repercussions of doing this. I would never hire or want to work with someone with such cheap morals

Realistically, profit seeking corporations would hire them. Insufficiently profit seeking corporations will be out-competed by ones that aren't.

They're also not becoming social pariahs outside of, perhaps, the vocal liberal segment of silicon valley.

I bet they'll be fine.

There are a much wider group of political views beyond "liberal" where profit-seeking censorship is a bad thing

Having Google on your resumé used to be a big deal but it's becoming a kind of liability in some circles.

On a technical basis I'm surprised this project was / needed to be undertaken at all. What am I missing?

The reason for my confusion is that the search engine already implements various "knock out" rules, for example:

- it inherently makes a choice as to how to respond to a query based on what it knows about the user ("Tyler" is more likely to refer to "Cowan" for me while "Swift" for the little girl next door).

- Though Google has resisted to some degree, it has whole swaths of results which are not permitted in various jurisdictions (various definitions of "hate speech") for example

- New "right to be forgotten" restrictions and copyright attacks

- "Fake news" attacks and complaints -- spam

Given that there have already been implementations (of varying levels of compliance -- I believe many of the censorship demands are intractable) really how would Dragonfly be different? Couldn't a censorship request from CCP use the same API the RIAA does?

> We are working with you to make sure your careers are not affected by this.

This is how you can hurt recruitment efforts indirectly. If I, as an employer, avoid Xooglers to make a statement, even if it has no material impact to the actual employment market as a whole, some people will hesitate before working there in the first place. People should work on parts of the company they can brag about shamelessly or any efforts as a tech community to blackball developers of perceived immoral features will expand to developers of entire companies.

Similarly, employees of these companies will now have to realize they are judged by the company they keep so to speak. I will say Google employees, compared to other companies, seem to have taken this judgement seriously. Don't think "I didn't work in that area" will save you if "that area" comes to fruition. There is not much pity for employees with other outs/options.

Wouldn't you want to encourage Google engineers to quit and work somewhere better? If everyone blacklists them they'll just stay at Google forever.

Oh definitely. I wasn't very clear; I meant if things come to pass. As a present-day employer, I would have no qualms hiring a former Google employee. But I won't hire a former Palantir employee (in the current market where I have many options).

you need to rethink this for more than 5 minutes. you're trading one bogeyman for another.

Could you elaborate?

> If I, as an employer, avoid Xooglers to make a statement

You mean the bank statement you have to show your top dollar lawyer to keep him on retainer for the discrimination lawsuits?

I can absolutely refuse to hire an employee because I don't like the college they went to or any business in their employment history. I don't know where you're getting the idea that employers can't use prior employment history to make hiring decisions.

Since when is having previously worked at google a protected class?

If I'm a startup and I am looking at two equally situated candidates, and one has Google experience and one does not, then I'm going to hire the one without Google experience every time based on culture fit alone.

I can confirm that something is definitely going on for sure.

Since 2008, google in China were: coding mules, tech support for ad doubleclick, sales for minor 3rd tier products. That was stable for 10 years, but suddenly, since around a year ago, they began to talking about whole new campuses, and rumors began circulating that country's top tier talent is being poached through shell companies by an obscure "internet search startup"

During the cold war, cozying up to the Russians the way Google is now sucking up to the Chinese would have been rated as treasonous. How times have changed, the almighty dollar sign reigns supreme.

(edit: slight change in wording)

>During the cold war, cozying up to the Russians the way Google is now sucking up to the Chinese would have been rated as treason.

I am a huge critic of China's human rights record, but "treason" has a very specific legal definition. Doing trade with a country is not "treason".

What would be a better term in your opinion?

Please consider watching this excellent Glenn Greenwald & James Risen debate over the usage of the word 'treason' and how dangerous it is to use it incorrectly. Greenwald cites prime US legal examples throughout history.


Doing business?

How many US companies do business in China, and have at least some access/collection of Chinese users' data? Are they all traitors?

I was asking the question in the context of my comparison with the cold war era. Doing business with Russia then wouldn't have been called just “doing business” either, especially if it happened in support of practices diametrically opposed to our own professed values like Democracy and Freedom.

How much of a sellout or a cynic do you have to be to call betraying those values for money merely “doing business”?

(edit: added last sentence)

Even during the cold war, Americans did business with Russia. No large computers or munitions, but Americans still ate Russian caviar. There was this call to boycott it at the same time as the Moscow olympics, but I don't think anyone called it "treason". https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1980/01/31/...

Nobody was actively participating in oppressing the russian population during the cold war. This attempt to dance around the issue is transparent.

The post you replied to is a direct answer to claims about trade between the US and Russia during the cold war.

The post I replied to is making false equivalence comparisons. There's nothing subtle about the issue being circumvented.

The equivalence comparison wasn't made by the post you replied to, but by it's parent.

> Even during the cold war, Americans did business with Russia

ie A false equivalence.

Me selling flags to Russians is doing business. That has nothing to do with the issue of what constitutes or can be construed as Treason which is certain kinds of business that ally against national interests.

When the United States have to choose between their professed values like Democracy and Freedom, and economical benefits in the US, what do you think took preference?

Spoiler: US-backed military leaders and dictators weren't pushed to power because they promised to support those values. US companies profited of that, and by that, the US economy.

That's on you, dog. You're the one misusing the term:

>“Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”

Here's a summary of the current meaning of "Don't be evil":

re. the USA: No, we can't possibly bid on the US Department of Defense cloud computing contract. because the contract may not align with the company’s principles.

re. China: Yes, we want to build a censored search engine for Chine because there are a billion potential users there.

To me the hypocrisy is astounding. What I don't understand is how Google's employees deal with the cognitive dissonance. I guess they're real good at compartmentalizing.

> What I don't understand is how Google's employees deal with the cognitive dissonance.

There are so many Google employees that I won’t expect them to all agree on these things. There are probably enough number of Chinese employees who would want to make such a product

> There are so many Google employees that I won’t expect them to all agree on these things.

At some level there are shot callers at Google that simultaneously reject the DOD for "values" and green light Dragonfly. I'm left to wonder how many euphemisms they'll need to employ to obscure their inherently unavoidable facilitation of China's Social Credit System. Good news for Google is they'll be ahead of the curve when the stars eventually align and the establishment gets its opportunity to deal with wrongthinkers in the the US.

God help us.

My guess is they knew they weren’t going to win the JEDI contract so they decided to make it a PR win by “withdrawing” based on principle.

> What I don't understand is how Google's employees deal with the cognitive dissonance.

They don't. The era of top notch engineers picking Google because of the company's vision and ethics are long gone.

Most employees at Google these days are just here to collect a (very fat) paycheck and don't give two hoots about the whole "don't be evil" thing.

I wonder how many H1B visa employees are working on Dragonfly?

According to CNN Google just dropped a bid for the DoD Cloud Computing project JEDI


... because they’re technically so far behind AWS and Azure that they aren’t even in the running. They even say they would have bid if it was multicloud so clearly it’s not on ethical grounds really.

It makes a lot more sense when you realize how many Google employees are Chinese citizens, and how many of the remainder are outright communists.

I think this is a turning point for Google's dominance in search. While they focus on reducing search quality in order to access more users, somebody out there will focus on improving search quality.

DuckDuckGo is already better than Google in some areas at least. You also have SymbolHound which made it a point to support searching for nonalphanumeric characters.

>DuckDuckGo is already better than Google in some areas

Mmmh. I do use DuckDuckGo as my main search engine, but I'm sorry to say: I unfortunately have to fall back to Google quite often to find what I'm looking for.

I'd be curious to know where they are better than Google.

Anything non-localised has been pretty good on DDG recently, much better than a few years ago. I tend to only pull up google for searches like 'XXXXX Opening Hours' and maps related queries nowadays.

I use DDG and have been starting to fall back to Google less than usual. I think they may be optimizing their search better now? It's a prime time to steal some market share.

After loving Google for years, I've finally migrated over to using Firefox and DDG as my primary daily browser. Slightly painful but I'm getting used to it. I recommend giving it a try.

looks like the main contradictions are in terms of the scope of the google project (300 employees, full time), the amount the project has been developed already (a very substantial amount), and the awareness of political issues as demonstrated by the leading google employees on the project (more than enough to know they're doing the wrong thing).

it also appears as though they are fully conscious of the prospect of social censure:

>We are working with you to make sure your careers are not affected by this.

so, they know they're clandestinely doing immoral things. but google corporate is determined to protect the minions from the consequences of being identified as an aid to totalitarianism.

given that we don't have a list of the google employees working on dragonfly, i think he's just succeeded in tainting the reputation of 100% of googlers and former googlers.

any one of them could have been working to keep the chinese oppressed via censorship by knowingly joining a new project designed explicitly to do so.

> it also appears as though they are fully conscious of the prospect of social censure:

>>We are working with you to make sure your careers are not affected by this.

I'll tell you how Google is going to spin it (maybe it's true, maybe it's spin, but it's what they're going to say) - If you work on a big project at Google that never gets launched, it affects your ability to move up in the ranks. So he's saying that people working on this aren't going to be "penalized" (passed over for promotion) because the political climate made their project unable to launch. Without that assurance, even if you assume there were no ethical concerns with the project, smart employees would not sign up for it because of the risk of external events preventing its launch.

I agree holeheartedly that Google management should be taking major flak for this and turn back from this plan, but I won't paint the engineers working on this as evil.

I know the people working as full time engineers aren't living on Ramen noodles and sleeping in boxes, but it's real hard to fight something when your and your family's livelyhood depend on not fighting it.

We should champion those willing to take the extraordinary step of walking away, leaking or pushing back on this; while recognizing such actions are extraordinary, and should not be expected of everyone.

It would be nice to live in a world where anyone can stand up and fight in this manor, but I just imagine an engineer who really, really can't lose his health insurance and the inner turmoil they go through.

This is pretty funny. If you have a job as a SWE at google, you have the opportunity to start working at probably 80+% of good software companies that are currently hiring. It is pretty cowardly to do something you know is bad just because you'll go from $300k/year at Google to $200k/year somewhere else

Other view on this: if you have a job as a SWE at Google, you might have had to relocate to a different country where you are not super well integrated (for example, only basic knowledge of the official language). Leaving your job might make you lose your visa, having to relocate and lose a large part of your social circle. Make that even more fun if you have a partner or kids or whatever.

Of course it's usually going to be somewhere in the middle. But not everyone lives in the Bay Area where you can hop between jobs and change employer every week.

“Just following orders” (this quote Godwin approved)

Is there a corrilary to the Peter Principle here? Promoted to your level of being afraid to disobey and lose status/wealth/power?

You could say that they are Disciplined Minds: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/558867.Disciplined_Minds

The Google execs who had big enough balls to walk away from the mountain of cash that the Chinese market represents are all long gone or retired.

Larry and Sergei in particular are nowhere to be seen in these discussions.

The people left in charge are nowhere near having the kind of backbone and ethics-driven decision making style the top management team had 8-10 years ago.

What Google has become in the last 10 years just another boring evil faceless corporation.

> What Google has become in the last 10 years just another boring evil faceless corporation.

Has there ever been a company that made it big, big enough to be in the Apple/Microsoft/IBM/Google class, that didn't become evil? To me, it seems inevitable once a corporation reaches a certain level of success in the market.

Is Apple terribly evil? IMHO they have always had a strong focus on privacy, even in China, and haven't exactly resorted to 'evil' tactics.

Does Google seriously believe the Chinese government will let them threaten Chinese companies? Are they just planning to use it as a window into a more technologically-integrated society to gain an advantage in the West?

I'm not very educated on this aspect, but could the US gov potentially be pushing Google to get more involved in China for this reason? More data on their lives.

If we're worried about one country using a tech corporation's hardware to spy on another, there is in some sense where we're denying the potentially neutral or amoral nature of what it means to be a multinational corporation that needs to consider the costs of operation in many different business environments. We might be unwarranted in our complaints in this regard.

At the other extreme, there is the possibility of legitimizing the company that operates in international markets to be aligned with a particular nation's values, and that this alignment is baked into the core of its business operations.

This option will probably leave a bad taste in the mouths of some hackers here who resent a consolidation of government power over companies, given that this smells a lot like some other rulerships in history that we frown upon.

But I'm unsure if there is a middle ground here. That's my fault if I'm missing it. Can we really hold a global company accountable to our ethical standards, which would not allow them to engage in the moral relativism necessary to access all markets?

I wonder how people would react to the following situation:

There are many Google mirror sites, most of which are currently blocked by China. If the Chinese government decides to work with some of the mirror sites to deliver Google search results in China, on the condition that the mirror sites apply a government filter to the search results, what would happen? I could think of three reactions:

1. Block those mirror sites from accessing Google search results, but this may be difficult since they could just use a different IP address.

2. Do nothing. A censored Google is available in China but people can hardly blame google for not blocking the mirror sites.

3. Work with the mirror sites (for example, require them to display Google ads along with search results).

When pressed to give specific details, Enright refused, saying that he was “not clear on the contours of what is in scope or out of scope for that project.”

I'm not sure what is more intellectually offensive: that an executive would say this, or say it and actually believe it would fly. A senior manager? Okay, sure. You might not know what project outside of your division is working on. An executive really shouldn't be this oblivious to their organization working with a foreign government.

The intent is to be intellectually offensive. He said it and knew it wouldn't fly. The attitude is "this is none of your business, deny deny deny, what are you gonna do about it?"

I don't like the secrecy, but I don't mind Google being in China. Just like with Apple, Chinese people would be better off with censored Google than without it at all.

This is insane - for all the folks out there saying that Apple and Amazon’s recent statements have been vague, here’s your first lesson in Dodging 101:

> When pressed to give specific details, Enright refused, saying that he was “not clear on the contours of what is in scope or out of scope for that project.”

Bravo - you’ve managed to make the parodies of Valley-speak look tame!

who believes that some version of Dragonfly hasn't been deployed in the US?

With the surveillance state we have, fisa courts, along with two corrupt business parties, an almost fully corrupt government, a corrupt military, no doubt. Anyone using Google since it's early days could probably notice a change in 2015 into the 2016 elections, especially how they handle news and looking up news/events that happened in the past. It's not exactly a wild theory. Twitter openly admits to purposeful censorship of hashtags [1].

Make Orwell fiction again.

[1] https://archive.is/1qD6n

Of course it has. You can't just Google for anything on the internet. Google has already censored child porn for example

What search terms do you think are being censored?

any word that starts with a minus sign, for one!

'fsck "-v"' and "fsck -v" return significantly different results for me.

We should probably tell the EFF that there’s a great way to circumvent Google’s censorship!

>Gomes referenced the sheer size of the Chinese market, saying “we are talking about the next billion users” for Google.

In one word: "profitsssss"

I am not defending Google. But, come on, what are they supposed to do? America is all about shareholder value and quarter after quarter after quarter gains. We created this beast. We share in some of the blame.

We who?

The current American economic system has been in place long before I was born and will continue without or without me. It is run by those who control it, not those who it controls.

Do you vote? Do you invest? Do you say, I'm not the problem, someone else it?

They’re supposed to do the right thing even when it costs them, just like the rest of us. They don’t get excused just because they’re incentivized to do the wrong thing. Most of us manage to keep our morals even when it would be to our advantage not to.

Also worth remembering that complaining about this is a very important action. The market is amoral by definition, and values morality only as much as participants demand it to.

Yes indeed! The answer to “What are they supposed to do?” could be “Realize it will cost them too much due to the backlash.”

This is a misconception. They are not "like the rest of us", in that they are a publicly traded corporation with a legal obligation to chase shareholder value above all else. "We" are private individual citizens.

I’m talking about the individuals making these decisions, not the company itself.

Speaking of misconceptions, the obligation to maximize shareholder value is one. Companies have to do what their shareholders want, but it doesn’t have to be profit maximization.

They could look to what companies like Apple do? i.e. not develop products that compromise human rights for profit?

My iPhone was made in China. Where was yours made?


I think this is a pretty good argument in favor of any large enough corporation having its mission become corrupted over time. It is impossible to maintain a certain employee culture over decades of employee turnover and growth, doubly so if you have public shareholders.

Google employees' outrage is derailing profits and opportunities at this point.

If the protesting employees think they're winning, they're patently wrong. One hiccup in the market, one quarter of slow growth is all it takes for Google to remove obstacles to it's goal.

As for shareholders & wall street, if Google continues to display impotence at capturing obvious opportunities, money will move elsewhere, & said slow growth of stock will happen

Google has piles of cash, and does not need Wall St.'s money.

What it needs is ad publishers' money. As long as it has a wide reach, the money will flow. Having a bad public image would only reduce this flow, if anything.

I think that the Google's most potent fear is that ad budgets of companies will decrease, or re-structure and go to other channels, and the source of 99% of Google's income will start to dry up. They have no replacement for it, and try to hedge against its loss incessantly and desperately (and without much success).

Well it's good to see. The transition from the "endless growth" and scale story to a sustainablity story is going to cause major tension given much more than just the financial stakes involved.

There is no point talking about controlling the world's temperature if every exec in a corporation is programmed by the stock market to robotically keep things mindlessly scaling.

But from experience I also know the exec class when under attack are well trained to just get defensive/batton down the hatches and do nothing. They will change their minds only when everyone is on the same page solution wise.

So rather than just be satisfied with the Us Vs them narratives, focus has to shift to solutions. The Chinese have to be pushed to have these discussions in the open about what they want and why it's good.

The Chinese aren't the ones pleading for a Google search solution. They won't talk about squat.

Google will, however, need to talk to curious investors on missing billion dollar opportunities while Bing goes about serving search without a fuss in China

You need to use some imagination here.

They are clearly giving Google a list or a process to follow. Make them own it. Publish the rules and regulations and let the world and Chinese people see it. Let people also see what Microsoft or whoever else is happy to accept.

They aren't pulling these censored words and processes out of their ass. They have methods to decide what causes "social instability" or whatever. Just as pressure is mounting on Facebook Twitter and YouTube framing similar rules in an ivory tower, the pressure has mount on the Chinese too. Their own people will increasingly have things to say about it.

Everyone benefits if the process is pushed to be transparent esp now since the unintended consequences of big tech on society are becoming more and more clearer.

> Google employees' manufactured outrage

Why is it manufactured?

Fair point, edited.

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