An empty chair reserved for a top executive for Google’s parent company Alphabet amid a September hearing on the Senate Intelligence Committee on “Foreign Influence Operations and Their Use of Social Media Platforms,” which Alphabet declined to send a top executive to attend.
Photo: Jose Luis Magana (AP)

Google has dropped out of the competition for a Pentagon cloud computing project that could be worth as much as $10 billion and last up to a decade, citing a possible clash with its corporate values, Bloomberg reported on Monday.

The Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) project, which involves the mass transfer of data previously handled by defense contractors to a commercial competitor, offers a big enough potential payout that it had attracted the attention of giants like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. Bids are due in under a week on October 12th. However, Bloomberg reported that Google is now opting not to pursue the contract because it might violate their “AI principles,” just months after it decided not to renew a separate Pentagon contract reviewing drone imagery titled Project Maven:

Google’s announcement on Monday came just months after the company decided not to renew its contract with a Pentagon artificial intelligence program, after extensive protests from employees of the internet giant about working with the military. The company then released a set of principles designed to evaluate what kind of artificial intelligence projects it would pursue.

“We are not bidding on the JEDI contract because first, we couldn’t be assured that it would align with our AI Principles,” a Google spokesman said in a statement. “And second, we determined that there were portions of the contract that were out of scope with our current government certifications.”

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Bloomberg added that a Google spokesperson said, had an effort by a number of companies including Microsoft, International Business Machines Corp., and Oracle Corp. to split the contract into pieces succeeded, the company could have “submitted a compelling solution for portions of it.”

The decision to back out of Project Maven occurred after thousands of employees signed a petition asking the company to stop working with the military, with numerous employees resigning in protest. Sources told Gizmodo that Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene had characterized the issue as a major headache for management. Though Maven itself was of limited value to the company, senior Google executives allegedly viewed it as a gateway to lucrative defense contracts involving projects like as surveillance systems that could monitor entire cities.

The JEDI project could have been used to support combat operations, raising yet more ethical red flags. Earlier this year, Defense One reported that Google co-founder Sergey Brin and CEO Sundar Pichai were instrumental in sparking the Pentagon’s interest in cloud computing, though the company had only quietly pursued a contract amid fears of a strong reaction from rank and file staffers. The site explained that JEDI would essentially put Google staff in the potentially ethically compromising position of providing de facto combat support to the U.S. military:

The Defense Department’s cloud needs are directly related to its ambitions for highly networked warfare across air, sea, land, space and cyberspace. That cloud provider will be helping the military hit targets and execute missions better, and much, much faster, even if the cloud is not formally involved in target selection or engagement, a job that the Pentagon maintains will continue to be done by human troops for the foreseeable future.

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In March, Defense One reported, Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein said, “When we look at the future, and discuss not only how to do we connect systems, connect computers at the tactical edge—most of things we are talking about are standalone computers—we have a real opportunity to ask, ‘How do we connect these?’ ...How could we speed decision-making to the point where we have humans doing only what humans need to do?”

In a statement to Bloomberg, the Tech Workers Coalition said that “sustained” pressure from employees opposed to Google involvement in JEDI showed workers “have significant power, and are increasingly willing to use it.”

The front-runner for the contract is widely believed to be Amazon, which already has a $600 million contract with the CIA. As the Washington Post wrote, Amazon is also one of the only major companies that supported a single, winner-take-all approach to the bidding process, which competitors have complained could essentially give it a monopoly on cloud computing contracts for the military in the future.

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[Bloomberg]