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The tweets that stopped Google in its tracks

August 17 · Issue #189 · View online
The Interface
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?

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