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Google Faces Calls to Cancel Mega Cloud Computing Project in Saudi Arabia

© REUTERS / Clay MclachlanFILE PHOTO: Logo of Google outside their headquarters in Mountainview, California.
FILE PHOTO: Logo of Google outside their headquarters in Mountainview, California. - Sputnik International, 1920, 27.05.2021
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Google has already abandoned the project once before after being pressured to do so. In 2018, it ditched Project Maven – a development of image-enhancing AI for the Pentagon's drones - that would autonomously detect and track designated individuals and objects. However, the backlash it faced from its own staff forced it to drop the idea.

Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have issued a joint statement calling on Google to abandon plans to build a Saudi Arabian "cloud region" – a massive cloud computing project conceived in cooperation with Riyadh.

The human rights watchdogs claim that the Saudi government might abuse the project's capabilities to spy on dissidents and more.

"There are numerous potential human rights risks of establishing a Google Cloud region in Saudi Arabia that include violations of the rights to privacy, freedom of expression and association, non-discrimination, and due process," the joint statement said.

The authors of the statement further argue that Riyadh has already used large internet platforms to spy on defenders of human rights and referred as proof to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by Saudi security forces in the country's embassy in Istanbul. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called out the "heinous crime" and took partial responsibility for it, but rejected claims he ordered the killing.

"I take full responsibility as a leader in Saudi Arabia, especially since it was committed by individuals working for the Saudi government," the prince said in the official statement.

How Google Plans to Deal With Concerns of Human Rights Watchdogs

Google will be establishing the "cloud region" in partnership with Saudi Aramco – Riyadh's state oil giant. The latter is interested in the project since it will help the company to "confidently grow and scale their offerings", Google said.

The tech giant has not officially commented on the human rights watchdogs' joint statement, but one of them, Human Rights Watch, says that Google responded privately to the call. The company claims to have taken "steps to address matters", which it itself had identified during the review of the human rights implications of the project. The HR watchdogs, however, want Google to do more - engage in "meaningful consultations" with those groups whose rights might be affected by the megaproject and specify how the company will be responding to possible requests from Riyadh that are "inconsistent with human rights norms".

People are silhouetted as they pose with laptops in front of a screen projected with a Google logo, in this picture illustration taken in Zenica October 29, 2014. - Sputnik International, 1920, 02.06.2018
Google to End Drone Program With Pentagon in 2019 – Reports

Although it is unclear as yet what Google will decide, it wouldn't be the first time the company decided to abandon a project for fear of the possible backlash or implications. In 2018, the company announced it would not renew a contract with the Pentagon to develop AI for drones, so they could identify and track targets without human operators (who would presumably still be needed to pull the trigger). Google made this decision after a significant number of its staff, including those involved in the project, objected to being complicit in the US overseas drone killings, which had repeatedly resulted in civilian collateral casualties.

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