Memo: Google in China: Values, Missions, and Business Development


"When you start with an ethical, mission-driven company and take out the ethics, that’s a problem." --Tiffany C. Li, Yale Law School’s Information Society Project

As outlined last week, consumers don’t like companies to get political, but they do want them to stand up for their “values” -- attributes like diversity and sustainability that companies increasingly tout, mainly when trying to attract new employees and being good corporate citizens.

And just like consumers, employees want to work for companies that stand up for “values” and adhere to the inspirational mission of the organization.

How CEOs and brands navigate the waters of globalization and politics with internal and external stakeholders will continue to shape business news reporting for the foreseeable future, even more so when China is involved.

This week, news reports suggest over 1,000 Google employees signed a letter asking for more transparency from Google executives about the expected rollout of Dragonfly, a censored search engine designed for the Chinese market.

The New York Times led with the headline: “Google employees protest secret work on censored search engine for China.”

Wall Street Journal technology columnist Christopher Mims penned a column with the header: “Google outgrows its youthful ideals” and wrote “everybody's got to grow up sometime. For Alphabet Inc.'s Google, that transition from youthful idealism to crusty, middle-age realism is in full swing.”

Google employees are taking action and what know what they’re building for the Chinese marketplace.

"Google employees are demanding answers from the company's leadership amid growing internal protests over plans to launch a censored search engine in China," The Intercept writes.

The public affairs environment where technology applications and business development objectives clash when companies need to work under with local rules and demands will continue to be newsworthy.

This is an ideal news story for reporters and editors. A news story involving a well-known, blue-chip American company complying with local rules and mandates many in the West find troublesome.

Interestingly, the employee letter notes that the Google staffers only learned about the China project from media reports and not from internal news sources or communications. "We urgently need more transparency, a seat at the table, and a commitment to clear and open processes: Google employees need to know what we're building," the letter says.

This type of employee grassroots activism isn’t new for Google employees who have been outspoken lately and also protested the company's work in a Pentagon program to use artificial intelligence to analyze military drone footage. Google pulled out of the program in June.

As you know, Google did suspend its China search engine in 2010 to avoid censorship restrictions. But the company does maintain a research and development presence as well as employing hundreds of employees who sell ads to Chinese companies that want to reach consumers outside China.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has told employees the company is "not close to launching a search product in China," as he defended Google's push to do more business in the country, The Wall Street Journal reported.

What some see as a business necessity others see as a controversial topic: work the company is doing with China that could include a censored search engine. Criticism for this application has come from inside and outside the company, with stakeholders demanding transparency around the ethical issues involved.

Co-founder Sergey Brin, who was vital to Google's decision to pull its search engine out of China in 2010 in protest of government censorship, has supported doing more Chinese business though he reports progress is "slow-going and complicated."

Do Google’s employees have the right to push back on where and how the company operates?

Business thought leaders, MBA professors, and boardrooms would be divided on that answer, but here’s what’s clear: No global business executive navigating US-China commercial relations should be surprised to see this sort of internal grassroots activism gaining momentum, particularly at a blue-chip American company like Google.

Even companies that see themselves as mission-driven can say it’s essential to be present in China, no matter what that takes. However, not all employees may agree, and indeed, some may take issue especially when discovering from outside sources what the company is doing.

When Google pulled out of China in 2010 the company's leadership stressed how “opposing censorship and speaking out for the freedom of political dissent” was Google’s “key issue.”

Google’s internal dissent is supposed to be part of its corporate culture.

How Google's senior business executives deal with this current employee revolt could very well set the tone and outcomes for other American multi-national corporations working in China.

Marc Ross

Based in Washington, DC, I specialize in thought leader communications and global public policy for public affairs professionals working at the intersection of globalization, disruption, and politics.

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