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Google caves in to employee activism… this time

Google Crosshairs

The Silicon Valley search giant has decided to dissolve its AI ethical council, one week after it was created, in response to opposition from its own employees. But it’s not always so responsive to their concerns.

A week after the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC) was created, Google told  VOX that it has decided to cancel the project. Controversy has been following the project from the start, especially surrounding one council member Google enlisted. This prompted an internal petition that attracted the signatures of more than 2,300 employees and the resignation of one Council member. The sole purpose of ATEAC, with its members unpaid and the body without any decision-making power, seems to generate good PR. In that respect it represents a spectacular own-goal, so Google has bravely run away.

“It’s become clear that in the current environment, ATEAC can’t function as we wanted. So we’re ending the council and going back to the drawing board. We’ll continue to be responsible in our work on the important issues that AI raises, and will find different ways of getting outside opinions on these topics.” Google sent this statement to VOX.

This is not the first time that Google has “listened to employees”. In June 2018, Google famously “ditched contract with the US military” after more than 3,000 employees protested the company’s AI technology being used for military surveillance, the so-called project Maven.

But Google has not always respected its employees’ views. After almost exactly a year after he disclosed that Google was secretly working on a censored version of search engine for China, Ryan Gallagher, the reporter for The Intercept, kept the interested readers updated with the news that Google was closer to readiness with the so-called project Dragonfly. Some senior executives were said to be doing a secret “performance review” of the product, contrary to Google’s normal practice of involving large numbers of employees when assessing upcoming products.

Despite that more than 1,400 employees have condemned project Dragonfly and some have resigned, in addition to Google’s CEO having to testify in front of the Congress, Google looks to be rather determined to push forward with its China re-entry strategy. The Financial Times reported that the search and online advertising giant has recently suspended serving ads on two Chinese websites that evaluate VPNs, which would have helped users inside the Great Firewall to bypass the blocking. A local research firm told the FT that, considering the acrimonious nature of Google’s departure from China nine years ago, the company “may feel compelled to make additional efforts to curry favour and get back in the good graces to get approval to re-enter the market.”

So it is not clear whether it was due to the number of employees protesting against project Dragonfly being smaller or the resignations lower-profile that Google has decided not to back down, or it is simply more convenient to disband a rubber-stamp council or to discontinue a contract with the American military than resisting the temptation of the Chinese market and standing up to the censorial demands of the Chinese authorities.

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