- In the five months since freshman Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) took office, he’s become known for his insightful understanding of big tech.
- And he doesn’t like a lot of what he sees.
- He’s just lobbed another blast at Google, in the form of an open letter over something that seems totally inconsequential: a mistaken Chinese translation via its free, automatic translation service.
- But the mis-translation seemed to support the Chinese government party line during Hong Kong’s protests.
- And Hawley’s letter is sending a not-so-subtle message that not everyone in Washington is as clueless about Silicon Valley as they sometimes appear to be.
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In the five months since freshman Senator Hawley (R-MO) took office, he’s become known for his warpath on big tech. His questions, bills, and commentary on tech are seen as “sophisticated” – proof that not everyone in Washington is as clueless about Silicon Valley as theysometimes appear to be.
He’s written an Op-Ed that blasted social media, and he’s submitted bills to limit tech’s bad behaviour including a “do not track” bill as well as a bill that stops apps from using in-app purchases, aka lootboxes, in children’s games.
And he’s said in media interviews that he’s disturbed by what he sees as the big tech companies giving Washington the run-around while at the same time lobbying heavily, he told Fast Company, last week.
Hawley was questioning a peculiar mistake in Google’s Chinese-to- English translation service made during Hong Kong’s massive protests last week.
During the protests, Google mistranslated the phrase, “I am sad to see Hong Kong become part of China,” to, “I am happy to see Hong Kong become part of China,” Agence France-Presse reported.
A Google spokesperson said that the automatic translation service merely made a mistake, that it sometimes translates a negative to a positive. The mistake went viral on Facebook, Agence France reported, and shortly after that the translation was corrected.
But in his letter, Hawley wonders if Google’s error was really an indication of just how close Google has become to “that authoritarian government” in China.
“The resulting mis-translation aligned with the narrative advanced by the Government of the People’s Republic of China concerning the protests,” Hawley points out in his letter.
Google stopped offering its Chinese-language search engine in mainland China in 2010, citing the Chinese government’s increasingly onerous censorship requirements. Last year, reports emerged that Google was developing a censored search app that would allow it to re-enter the Chinese market. Google has since said it has no current plans to offer censored search in China.
Hawley’s letter appears to be less about this translation error and more about letting Google know just how closely he’s watching the tech giant.
Here’s Hawley’s full letter:
June 18, 2019
Mr. Sundar Pichai Chief Executive Officer Google, LLC 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway Mountain View, CA 94043
Dear Mr. Pichai,
I write to express concern regarding Google’s role in the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. On June 14, 2019, the Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that Google Translate mistranslated the phrase, “I am sad to see Hong Kong become part of China,” to, “I am happy to see Hong Kong become part of China [italics added],” for a period of approximately one hour during the protests. The resulting mistranslation aligned with the narrative advanced by the Government of the People’s Republic of China concerning the protests.
Responding to the AFP report, a Google spokesman said, “Google Translate is an automatic translator, using patterns from millions of existing translations to help decide on the best translation for you. . . These automatic systems can sometimes make unintentional mistakes like translating a negative to a positive.” Yet, given Google’s close relationship with Beijing and financial incentive to remain close to that authoritarian government, I remain concerned that Google may have been negligent in performing the due diligence that could have averted this mistranslation at a juncture where precision of message is so critical.
That due diligence is particularly necessary in the case of Hong Kong, as the Government of the People’s Republic of China is intent on reasserting control over the city and has long used information operations to advance its political agenda. Inasmuch as Google provides a space for the people of Hong Kong to share information, that space will be targeted for manipulation by Beijing. It thus falls upon Google to place principle over profit and protect its products against such interference — even if doing so might cause discomfort in the company’s dealings with Beijing.
The people of Hong Kong are fighting now to preserve the democratic character of their city. Millions of those people are relying on Google’s products to advance this noble cause. As a company whose success stems in part from the liberties inherent to American society, Google ought to take this cause as seriously as those using its platforms to fight for their freedom.
And here’s Google’s full statement from a spokesperson. “Google Translate is an automatic translator, using patterns from millions of existing translations to help decide on the best translation for you. These automatic systems can sometimes make unintentional mistakes like translating a negative to a positive. We are committed to continue improving our technology.”
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