Google reportedly backing out of military contract after public backlash

A controversial Google contract with the U.S. military will not be renewed next year after internal and public outcry against it, Gizmodo reports. The program itself was not particularly distasteful or lucrative, but served as a foot in the door for the company to pursue more government work that may very well have been both.

Project Maven, as the program was known, essentially had Google working with the military to perform image analysis on sensitive footage like that from drones flying over conflict areas.

A small but vocal group of employees has repeatedly called the company out for violating its familiar (but now deprecated) “Don’t be evil” motto by essentially taking a direct part in warfare. Thousands of employees signed a petition to end the work, and several even resigned in protest.

But more damaging than the loss of a few squeaky wheels has been the overall optics for Google. When it represented the contract as minor, and that it was essentially aiding in the administration of open-source software, the obvious question from the public was “so why not stop?”

The obvious answer is that it isn’t minor, and that there’s more to it than just a bit of innocuous support work. In fact, as reportage over the last few months has revealed, Maven seems to have been something like a pilot project intended to act as a wedge by which to gain access to other government contracts.

Part of the goal was getting the company’s security clearance fast-tracked and thus gaining access to data by which it could improve its military-related offerings. And promises to Pentagon representatives detailed far more than facilitation of garden-variety AI work.

Gizmodo’s sources say that Diane Greene, CEO of Google Cloud, told employees today at a meeting that the backlash was too much and that the company’s priorities as regards military work have changed. They must have changed recently, since discussions have been ongoing right up until the end of 2017. I’ve asked Google for comment on the issue.

Whether the expiration of Project Maven will represent a larger change to Google’s military and government ambitions remains to be seen; some managers are surely saying to themselves right now that it would be a shame to have that security clearance go to waste.

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