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A PR screwup draws unwanted attention to Google’s Saudi data centers

First, Google announced it was expanding cloud services in Saudi Arabia. Then things got messy. Now, more questions than answers remain.

A PR screwup draws unwanted attention to Google’s Saudi data centers

Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai speaks at the Google Cloud Next '19 event in San Francisco, California.

Photo: Michael Short/Bloomberg

A few days before Christmas, Google published a blog post announcing that it was expanding its cloud network in Chile, Germany and Saudi Arabia. The post seemed to imply that Snap would be one of Google's primary clients in Saudi Arabia, and quoted Snap's senior director of infrastructure as saying that Google's investment in the region would "enable us to better serve our hundreds of millions of customers around the world, no matter where they may be."

The post immediately caught the attention of a group of digital rights activists, who worried that Snap might be putting its users' data at risk by routing it through data centers in a country with an abysmal human rights record. On Tuesday, the group Access Now sent letters to the CEOs of both companies, asking questions about their plans and calling on them to pull out of Saudi Arabia.

A day later, all mention of Snap's involvement had been scrubbed from Google's blog post, spurring rampant speculation that the two companies were engaging in some kind of cover-up.

The reality, it turns out, is a lot messier than that — but no less problematic for Google. The blog post ordeal, which amounts to something of a public relations screwup, is now focusing even more scrutiny on Google's plans and the lack of transparency surrounding its ambitions in Saudi Arabia.

According to Snap, the company doesn't store any private user data in Saudi Arabia and doesn't plan to once Google's cloud network is up and running there either. In a response to Access Now, Snap said its quote was taken out of context by Google. "The quote we provided was in reference to our global user base and in keeping with our desire to improve app performance for Snapchatters everywhere, not any particular region," the company said.

Google said that while it regularly seeks approval from its cloud customers before mentioning them in public posts, the company realized that this particular blog post was unclear and updated it this week.

But the timing looked bad, and Google proceeded to double its public relations problem by deleting the mention of Snap only after both companies received letters from Access Now. It was only after the subsequent outcry from Access Now and others that Google re-inserted the Snap executive's quote — this time, in a different place — and added context about the earlier mixup.

"We've adjusted the placement of a customer quote within our December geoexpansion announcement," a Google spokesperson said.

And yet, through all of the updates, Google still hasn't addressed the questions that Access Now was asking about its decision to open data centers in Saudi Arabia in the first place. The back and forth over the blog post has only called more attention to those underlying questions. "I never believed their response would be to edit the blog post. I'm deeply disappointed that's how they chose to respond," said Vivek Krishnamurthy, director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, who co-authored the letter with Access Now. "The questions are still out there."

Those questions include what due diligence went into the decision to enter Saudi Arabia, what customers might hold data in Google's Saudi servers and what sort of access to data the Saudi government will have.

Following the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government agents, Google was one of several prominent tech companies to distance itself from the country, pulling out of a popular business conference held in the capital of Riyadh in 2018. But that same year, Google also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Saudi oil giant Aramco to launch cloud services in the region. The December blog post announced that the two companies had reached an agreement to forge ahead with the deal.

But it's still unclear who, exactly, will be storing data with Google in Saudi Arabia. Asked whether Google plans on replying to Access Now's questions, a company spokesperson pointed to Google's current policies on government requests for user data, which state that the company complies with official, written requests under "appropriate law." The spokesperson wouldn't comment further in response to Access Now's questions.

On Thursday, Krishnamurthy said that he had spoken with Snap, which plans to issue a public statement about its work in Saudi Arabia. (While Snap doesn't store private communications in Saudi, it does plan to route public communications, like data from its Explore feature, through Google's cloud infrastructure). Next week, Krishnamurthy and Access Now are set to have a similar conversation with Google. One thing that's certain: A lot more people will now be awaiting their answers.

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