Google’s reported ambitions in China (2018.08.06)

Welcome to Transpacifica Issue 9. This issue focuses on Google’s reported ambitions to reenter the search market, open a news app, and partner with Tencent for cloud services in China. There’s been a lot of great reporting, and though little has been confirmed, there’s enough to conclude that the macro story of serious ambitions is valid, even if the details continue to develop. Below I consider the possibilities and some of their implications.

Speaking of cloud services, new from DigiChina last week was our translation of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology think tank CAICT’s 2018 white paper on big data security. Check it out.

After this edition I will be on vacation and moving, so the next edition will come to you in September.  –Graham

As always: Please encourage friends and colleagues to subscribe to the Transpacifica newsletter; here is the web version of this message, ideal for sharing on social media; and you can follow me on Twitter at @gwbstr. Please send your comments, quibbles, and suggestions to [email protected].

The (reported) facts on Google’s plans, and some uncertainties

  • Search. The Intercept on August 1 reported that Google was planning to offer a mobile phone search app in China that would comply with censorship requirements, citing leaked documents. The report included details such as the project code name (Dragonfly), word that the app had been demonstrated for Chinese officials, a timeline for possible launch if approved (six to nine months), and news that CEO Sundar Pichai met with Politburo Standing Committee Member Wang Huning in December.

    Some uncertainties:

    • Pichai’s reported meeting with Wang is framed as “a private meeting,” which could refer to a Google-Wang bilateral or a broader but still private meeting in which Wang could have met with various executives alongside the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen. (Wang delivered a keynote during the opening ceremony on the morning of Dec. 3, and Pichai appeared on a panel in the main auditorium that afternoon. Cyberspace Administration of China Minister Xu Lin was of course also at that conference.)
    • The Intercept report said based on internal documents that Google’s censorship would be accomplished by “automatically identify[ing] and filter[ing] websites blocked by the Great Firewall” and by “‘blacklist[ing] sensitive queries’ so that ‘no results will be shown.'” It’s not clear how Google precisely would determine which queries are “sensitive” and would be blacklisted.
  • News. The Information reported the same day that Google was developing a news app for the China market that would also comply with censorship requirements. “The news app Google is working on resembles popular Chinese news apps such as Bytedance’s Toutiao and uses artificial intelligence to provide personally tailored content, rather than relying on human editors,” according to their sources.

    Some uncertainties:

    • How would Google’s app customize news feeds? Assuming they start from a censored universe of preexisting content, the company may not need to proactively censor. Still, the usual way to serve customized feeds is to collect user behavior data and search for patterns that predict what a person wants to see. So if such user browsing data is collected, what if authorities want to access it? The company could be put in a position to comply or risk its business operations in several areas, and browsing data can be very revealing. Such data is likely already available to Chinese authorities from other apps and from Internet service providers and mobile companies, but Google would be in a position where it would be hard not to participate in Chinese government surveillance efforts. Would authorities go easy on Google? Hard to imagine they would.
    • It’s possible the app could adopt methods that allow AI-driven services to function with less centralized data collection. Such methods designed to achieve functionality with greater data protection and privacy protection are in development, including under the banner of “federated learning,” but they would deny the company the use of large datasets collected on users.
  • Cloud. Bloomberg reported Aug. 5 that Google was “in talks with Tencent Holdings Ltd., Inspur Group, and other Chinese companies to offer its cloud services” in China, with candidates for partnership narrowed in March to three firms.

    Some uncertainties:

    • The Bloomberg story mentions Google Cloud services to buy computational power and also the “G Suite” unit of Google Cloud that provides Gmail, Docs, Drive, etc., services on one’s own domain.
    • Offering cloud computation services would be one thing. Google markets custom hardware and companion software for AI applications including through its Tensorflow products, and based on recent patterns with Amazon and others, it would need a local partner to host such services in China.
    • Offering Gmail, Drive, Docs, etc., would be a huge can of worms in terms of the company’s handling of personal information, both under Chinese regulations on personal data protection and handling of “personal information and important data” related to “critical information infrastructure” under the Cybersecurity Law and related documents. It would also engage dilemmas such as those faced by Yahoo, which famously came under criticism after a dissident and a journalist were both imprisoned after the company provided their data to Chinese authorities. How would Google respond to similar requests? Or would Google avoid providing these services in China to avoid the problem?
  • More brains on the case:

About Transpacifica

The Transpacifica newsletter is produced by me, Graham Webster, a senior fellow with Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center and fellow with New America, where I am coordinating editor of the DigiChina project, working from a home base in Oakland, California. The opinions expressed here are my own, and I reserve the right to change my mind. For three years and 131 issues after its founding in February 2015, this newsletter was known as U.S.-China Week. It now appears biweekly, delivered by free e-mail subscription.

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