Google says it will judge journalist’s future role on whether he criticises China

Former journalism reporter attacked for Google-supported broadcasting of ‘fake news’ but remains in post

Google has said it will judge its potential China correspondent, Jonathan Kanter, based on how he deals with “defamation and harassment” related to his Guardian profile.

The search giant, which also has a relationship with Kanter’s two graduate degrees, said it would not take his comments out of context, accused him of trying to “inflame” his critics and raised fresh doubts about his impartiality.

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Kanter told a tech conference that he would be investigating Google for its “biggest adversary” and might report on its anti-trust practices or pay public interest journalism groups in China to look into its policies.

He told the Guardian last year that he would become a critic of US technology companies like Google if they failed to embrace independent media to allow Chinese stories to flourish. The comments caused a storm of controversy, with critics objecting to Kanter’s hiring and accusing him of giving a platform to the Chinese government to attack Google.

The Chinese government has blocked Google’s main search engine and Gmail service for several years, and the Alphabet group has been scrutinised for allowing the introduction of Chinese companies into its hardware and services.

Kanter returned to journalism after his comments, working at Fusion, a politics and culture website, and CNN where he acted as a commentator. But he decided to resign when CNN claimed it would vet his opinions because of his previous comments, after which he took a job at Google.

Google said it would judge Kanter on what kind of work he produces for the company. “Our approach to potential reporters and commentators is to review their past work and involvement with issues that we are interested in,” a spokeswoman said.

“Given this, Jonathan’s comments at the conference were obviously defamatory and completely unrelated to his journalism work.”

While at Fusion, Kanter attacked Google for a decision to begin selling operating systems to PC makers in China, a move he claimed would have a devastating effect on independent media organisations.

This view was also criticised, particularly by those who work in academic media studies and digital literacy.

“My ethical concerns about Jonathan Kanter have been overstated,” Georgia Tech journalism professor Matt Waite, said. “First, there’s the very real issue that Google is a censor. Big tech companies have, and will continue to have, a role to play in forming and reshaping the news flow in China.”

But Waite said he does not think Kanter represents an outright danger. “The issue here is that Kanter is on the edge of Google’s conscience, and now publicly criticising the company. It’s the worst possible outcome in his case.”

The position of journalism watchdog Reporters Without Borders on Kanter is also unclear. “He’s an interesting figure,” said a spokesman. “He’s very outspoken. He’s not a known veteran journalist.”

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