In May, Google quietly removed “Don’t be evil” from the text of its corporate code of conduct, deleting a catchphrase that had been associated with the company since 2000. Amid startling revelations of how social media and internet platforms can enable political interference and new forms of stealthy cyberwarfare, avoiding evil in Silicon Valley has turned out to be harder than it looks. In a world where Twitter’s terrorist may be Facebook’s freedom fighter, decisions over what content to algorithmically uplift or suppress can involve agonizing questions of interpretation, intent, and cultural context.
But amid all the moral ambiguity and uncharted terrain of running an internet platform that controls vast swaths of global discourse and reaps commensurate revenues, some dilemmas are more straightforward than others. That’s why word of Google’s plans to substantially expand its currently minimal role in the Chinese market—through the potential launch of a censored search engine code-named Dragonfly—has provoked such uproar.