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Why Joe Lonsdale’s accusation about unpatriotic Google is a deflection

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Palantir cofounder Joe Lonsdale has doubled down on the controversial statements made by his mentor and cofounder, Peter Thiel by saying on CNBC Squawk Alley “Google clearly needs to evaluate what it’s doing. Peter and I built a very patriotic company. Google is clearly not a patriotic company.”

Lonsdale hasn’t been directly employed by Palantir in many years, since about 2009. He was one of the original handful of people to found it when working alongside billionaire investor Peter Thiel. Today he’s a venture capitalist investor.

Lonsdale was on CNBC to discuss what his friend and mentor, Peter Thiel, said during a speech at the National Conservatism conference in Washington, DC, on Sunday. Thiel said that Google’s relationship with China was “seemingly treasonous.” He later doubled down on the remarks on Fox News, calling for the FBI and the CIA to investigate Google. And on Tuesday morning President Trump said his administration “would take a look.”

Both Thiel and Lonsdale are known for their right-leaning, libertarian politics and Thiel has been a long-time public supporter of Donald Trump.

Word on the street is that Thiel is now living primarily on Los Angeles because his public support for Trump has made him unpopular in Silicon Valley, an area where tech workers are passionately opposed to Trump and many of his policies.

Not working for government = unpatriotic?

The gist of their argument is this: Google decided not to sell its AI tools to the US military, cancelling its work on a project called Project Maven after Google employees protested that they didn’t want their work to be turned into weapons. But because the Chinese government has its fingers in everything, doing AI research in China means sharing that tech with Chinese government and not the U.S.

“When we’re talking about treason, we’re talking about patriotism, the No. 1 thing is that Google refused to work with the US government on defense. When Google made the choice we’re actively not going to help the US government in defense, but we are going to continue to work in China. Because in China, you have to work with the government,” he said. “So if working in China, working on the AI, you are helping the government.”

To be clear, Google is working on AI tech in China, a country where a lot of AI tech R&D is going on. Google opened an AI lab in Beijing in late 2017 to focus on “education, research on natural language understanding and market algorithms, and development of globally available tools,” it says.

Google had been accused of trying to bring its search engine back to China, which would entail building a censored search engine, but CEO Sundar Pichai says it has no plans to do that.

Spies at Google and all over the Valley?

Still Lonsdale went even farther, implying that Silicon Valley tech companies, and Google in particular, were riddled with Chinese spies. When asked if Chinese spies have infiltrated Google by Squawk Alley, he said:

“Everyone in the Valley knows that the Chinese government is very involved there. When you talk to people who are senior at Google, the reason at first they didn’t want to go into China was because they knew everything would be stolen. At this point, they know everything is stolen anyway.

We find at all of our companies Chinese spies. It’s something we don’t talk about a lot. It’s a regularly known thing in Silicon Valley.”

In contrast, Palantir was founded as a way to help government, spy agencies, the military, the police, use big data analysis tools for governments.

“Palantir is probably the most patriotic company in the Valley. It’s done amazing work for the US government,” Lonsdale says.

While some businesses use Palantir’s software — it makes specific products for pharma and manufacturing for instance — many of its customers are government agencies.

They use it for fight human trafficking, monitor severe weather and they definitely use it for military purposes. For instance, the U.S. army has hired Palantir, for instance, to help it build complex battlefield intelligence system.

Finger pointing and deflecting

But there’s another layer to the story.

The verbiage of “patriotism” and “treason” among tech moguls is new and alarming, reminiscent of the McCarthy-era in 1950s America.

Both of these men understand that the United States is a democracy, not a state-run country. A US company has every legal right not to sell its wares to the government. If they didn’t have that right, the US would a state-run country, not a free country.

This bit of rhetoric has an interesting consequence.

It asks the media and the Valley to turn its attention to Google and away from Palantir at a time when protests against Palantir among tech workers have been heating up.

Protesters like the Tech Coalition New York, the Progressive Technology Project, Mijente have been orchestrating protests against Palantir for its work with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). They oppose ICE’s enforcement policies at the southern US border.

Palantir has acknowledged that ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) is a Palantir customer. Palantir says ICE uses its tech for investigating criminal activity like human trafficking, child exploitation, and counter-terrorism.

Meanwhile protesters are showing up at various Palantir’s offices and Silicon Valley engineers are calling on those who work at Palantir to quit.

So Thiel and Lonsdale’s controversial statements provide a convenient way for them to give a full-throated defense of their company while pointing fingers elsewhere.

“I think we need more people in Silicon Valley thinking about what it means to be an American citizen, as opposed to just being a global citizen,” Lonsdale said on CNBC.

A representative for Lonsdale declined to comment to Business Insider.

Google told Business Insider that “as we have said before, we do not work with the Chinese military. We are working with the U.S. government, including the Department of Defense, in many areas including cybersecurity, recruiting and healthcare.”

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