There are many reasons to be critical of Google. But on Thursday, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stopped just short of accusing the tech giant of treason.
Dunford’s incendiary comments came during a budgetary hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee this afternoon. During his time for questioning, freshman Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican, turned to the subject of Google’s decision to back away from projects with the Pentagon. Hawley asked the panel if he understood the situation correctly and that the men were saying, “that Google, an American company, supposedly, is refusing to work with the Department of Defense, but is doing work with China, in China, in a way that at least indirectly benefits the Chinese government.”
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan tempered that assertion, explaining that he hasn’t heard anyone use the word “refuse,” but that Google has shown “a lack of willingness to support DOD programs.”
But General Dunford was more open to going on the attack. When given the chance to elaborate on his concerns, he told Senator Hawley:
You know, senator, I’m nodding my head on exactly the point that you made: that the work that Google is doing in China is indirectly benefitting the Chinese military. And I’ve been very public on this issue as well; in fact, the way I described it to our industry partners is, ‘look we’re the good guys in the values that we represent and the system that we represent is the one that will allow and has allowed you to thrive,’ and that’s the way I’ve characterized it. I was just nodding that what the secretary was articulating is the general sense of all of us as leaders. We watch with great concern when industry partners work in China knowing there is that indirect benefit, and frankly ‘indirect’ may be not a full characterization of the way it really is. It’s more of a direct benefit to the Chinese military.
Last year, after word leaked that the company was building artificial intelligence to better analyze drone footage for the U.S. military, Google faced criticism from the public and outrage from its employees who don’t want the incredibly powerful tech company working on products that are in any way used to help kill people. (Google responded by opting to not renew its contract for the imaging-processing AI, part of the Pentagon’s Project Maven effort, and vowing to only focus on building “socially beneficial” AI.) It has simultaneously experienced a public uproar over its secretive plans to build a search engine for the Chinese market that would need to follow the repressive censorship guidelines of the Chinese government. It has since pledged not to go forward with its censored search product—at least for the time being. Google has limited operations in China since it pulled most of its products in 2014 amid a battle over censorship, and its Android smartphone software represents its biggest footprint in Chinese markets.
Could Google be working on some unannounced project with Beijing that Dunford is coyly referencing? Sure. But if so, why not reference that directly or not mention it at all if it’s such a secret?
As they stand, the general’s comments appear to imply that Google’s lack of collaboration with the DoD, coupled with its day-to-day business in non-military activity, somehow provides a direct benefit to the Chinese military by default. An “if your not with us your against us” type of mindset that’s simultaneously unnerving and illogical.
Secretary Shanahan attempted to connect the dots a bit when he explained that “the fusion of commercial business with [the] military is significant,” in China. “Five trillion dollars of their economy is state-owned enterprises, so the technology that is developed in the civil world is transferred to the military world—it’s a direct pipeline,” Shanahan said. Following Shanahan’s logic, it would appear that any American company that develops a product that finds its way to the Chinese market is directly benefitting the Chinese military.
Senator Hawley appeared inspired by the responses and proceeded to repeatedly emphasize that Google, “an American company,” does not want to work with the DoD but is “happy to help the Chinese—at least the Chinese government, that is—the Chinese military at least indirectly.”
When reached for comment on the officials’ remarks, a Google spokesperson pointed Gizmodo to CEO Sundar Pichai’s comments at a congressional hearing last December in which he said:
As an American company, we cherish the values and freedoms that have allowed us to grow and serve so many users. I am proud to say we do work, and we will continue to work, with the government to keep our country safe and secure.
Aside from advancing Hawley’s brand as the senator who attacks Google from a conservative perspective, it’s not clear what was accomplished today. But Dunford sent a striking message to any tech companies that might consider getting involved with the DoD in the future: If you get in bed with us and you decide you want to break it off, you might be called a traitor.