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Google's big return to China must not put citizens in harm's way

Google's big return to China must not put citizens in harm's way
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On Thursday,  Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceBrunson release spotlights the rot in Turkish politics and judiciary Scrap the Third Communique with China, keep the Six Assurances to Taiwan US must encourage world action to end genocide in Burma MORE called on Google to immediately end work on a project code named “Dragonfly” — a new mobile app aimed at the Chinese market that will censor news the government would find unwelcome, including news about human rights, religion and democracy.

Dragonfly has been controversial since the project was first revealed this summer. Recent news reports have suggested that Google is considering re-entering the Chinese market after leaving the country in 2010 amid chafing about the censorship policies of the Chinese government.

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According to a Wall Street Journal report, Pence made it clear that he thought the project should end. “Google should immediately end development of the Dragonfly app that will strengthen Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers,” Pence was quoted as saying.

Pence is just the latest critic of the project. Reportedly, some 1,400 Google employees have signed a letter calling for more transparency. But the lure of the giant Chinese market with 700 million users and $100 billion in revenue is going to be hard to resist. 

Even harder will be squaring the allure of the great and lucrative Chinese market with the company’s founding motto:  "Don’t be Evil."

Other companies have stepped up in the face of controversy. Kevin Sneader, new managing partner of management consultancy McKinsey and Co., wrote in a note to alumni that the firm “will not, under any circumstances, engage in any work, anywhere in the world, that advances or assists policies that are at odds with our values.” 

That’s a sweeping statement for a firm that works in countries all around the world and in controversial industries.

And employees at other technology companies like Microsoft and Amazon have raised their voices and halted projects they felt infringed on privacy or human rights. A key principle is the belief that technology should be used for good, and not for harm.

Google left China in 2010 not only because of censorship policies, but also when it knew that dissidents were identified from Google data and, in certain cases, detained by the central government. As the company weighs its choices to return to China, it must remember its core values. 

It cannot put dissidents or others at risk for the sake of profits; only if their technology is developed so it is used for good, and not for harm, can they be comfortable reentering the Chinese market. 

Neal Hartman is a senior lecturer and group head of the Managerial Communications Department at the Sloan School of Management at MIT.

Editor's note: A previous iteration of the piece incorrectly stated that McKinsey and Co. ended its contract with ICE due to issues its workers had with current immigration policy.