Asia, Politics, Security, Tech, World Affairs

Google’s China Ambitions Threaten U.S. National Security

A month before the 2024 elections the Chinese dictator issues an ultimatum to the U.S. president:

Abandon defense of Taiwan or Google will politically destroy you. If your navy does not immediately leave the Taiwan Strait, Google’s algorithms will send each American the news articles that would make them the most likely to vote against your party.

But why, you might ask, would Google ever help China blackmail the American president?  Google has probably discussed altering search results to influence U.S. elections. The tech giant is also probably willing to censor information in China as the price of admission to that country’s market. It doesn’t seem too great a leap forward to imagine Google biasing search results in the U.S. to appease the Chinese Communist Party. While today China might be satisfied putting spy chips on hardware used by American tech companies, in the future it could use its economic power to dictate what these businesses do during times of international crisis.

I don’t blame Google for being willing to bend its ethical standards to operate in authoritarian countries.  The Chinese Communist Party is going to censor its citizen’s Internet access regardless of what Google does, so Google won’t be the cause of Chinese citizens being denied full access to humanity’s online knowledge. Plus, Google needs China a lot more than the Chinese government needs Google.

The search market is dominated by what economists call “economies of scale” where the bigger you get the lower your costs per customer are.  The research costs of creating better search can be spread over all your customers, so the more customers you have the more such research you can finance. If Google only cared about continuing its command of the U.S. search market, it would still desperately want to be in China because if it couldn’t profit from selling Chinese eyeballs to advertisers while a competitor could, this competitor would have an economy of scale size advantage that might well allow it to beat Google in western markets. China’s real ultimatum to Google is not “do what we say or keep out” but “bend the knee or we will give your rivals a huge leg up on you in all markets.”

Economies of scale might prevent a market-based solution to Chinese interference in the U.S. information market. Let’s say that Google does give in to occasional Chinese demands, the public finds out, and most Americans disapprove.  Pretend that an American rival to Google proudly offers a search engine that ignores the dictates of China. Unfortunately, this rival’s limited worldwide market share means it invests less in research and development. Most of the time, and on most topics, therefore, Google search does do a better job of getting you the information that you want, and so even Americans who know and dislike how Google biases its search results end up sticking with Google.

Academia shows China’s willingness to leverage access to influence what Americans learn about.  Lots of American professors need to conduct research in China to work in their areas of expertise. As Isaac Stone Fish at the New Republic writes: “There is an epidemic of self-censorship at U.S. universities on the subject of China, one that limits debate and funnels students and academics away from topics likely to offend the Chinese Communist Party.” An American historian of China claims “I frequently hear graduate students and younger scholars—people with academic jobs but pre-tenure—being advised not to explore sensitive subjects in their research, so they can preserve visa access.”  If China is willing to bully graduate students away from writing mildly anti-Chinese academic articles that almost no one will read, do you doubt that China would do everything it could to push Google to act in a way vital to China’s perceived national security interests?

What can we do about China’s potential future ability to harm American politicians through influencing Internet companies that operate in both China and the United States?  Using antitrust laws to break up these businesses wouldn’t help because even if there was no single search giant, every American search company would still desperately want access to the Chinese market.  China can get what it wants from American scholars who must occasionally work in China, even though no one university has a large share of such researchers.

Regulating Google’s algorithms to prevent foreign interference also seems hopeless. Because search programs must be continually changed, no government agency would have the competence to judge whether they are being biased by Chinese pressure.

A drastic solution could be to forbid Google, or any company that wants to do business in the U.S. search market from also operating in a dictatorship. The Australian government has decided to ban a Chinese smartphone maker from access to its 5G wireless network over national security concerns.

Everyone expects that the Chinese government would be willing to use this firm to advance Chinese national security interests because all nations including (especially?) the United States force firms they have power over to serve their foreign policy ends. Perhaps the only way to protect the free world’s Internet is to wall it off from Chinese influence.

A less drastic solution would be to impose some general limits on tech giants’ ability to censor. Perhaps on their social media platforms they could lose the ability to ban speech that doesn’t violate U.S. law. This way, while China could push YouTube to not highlight videos criticizing human rights abuses in Tibet, it couldn’t compel Google to treat them like Alex Jones.

We have let China manufacture much of the world’s mobile phones and personal computers, and China appears to have used this opportunity to hide spy chips on hardware probably allowing it to gather data on numerous western companies.  China’s influence over Google, a key organizer of information for the free world, won’t go well for us especially if we don’t reduce Google’s ability to bias its information in favor of what the powers that be at Google desire.

 

James D. Miller is a professor of economics at Smith College and the host of the Future Strategist podcast.  He is @JimDMiller on Twitter.