January 31, 2006

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China, Google, evil and hysteria

I was going to add my $0.02 on the Google.cn hysteria, which is much ado about nothing. But John C. Dvorak pretty much summed up my thoughts already:

So Google goes into China to do business and goes along with the Chinese program of censorship already accepted by Yahoo!, MSN, and others. If a company wants to do business in China, such acceptance is part of the ground rules. An outcry immediately ensues. Apparently Google should tell China to stuff it and stay out, or stay in but refuse to censor anything.

This is one of the funniest debates I've ever seen, and I can only blame Google for the controversy. It's the supposed company motto, "Do no evil," that is the crux of the problem...the company has this motto as an albatross around its neck. Any false move or normal Silicon Valley business practice will be highlighted and the "Do no evil" motto will be thrown in the face of the executives...Indeed, the comment does make it sound as if Google is somehow better than everyone else because of this supposed policy. Holier than thou. It's annoying. So the China thing comes along and boom, the evil hits the fan.

Now what can Google do about this? First of all, I don't think this really affects anything except the company principals, who have to live with never-ending ragging and finger-pointing and the "hypocrite!" moniker. Perhaps some professional damage control will help. The company is clueless about that, and that, too, could be perceived as evil.

Or perhaps they can do what I suspect they'll do. Go into China promising to abide by government censorship and let the Chinese themselves figure out how to bypass the mechanism. Chinese computer users are not idiots.

Problem solved.

The crux of this "debate" is simple: do you see the world in terms of black and white, or in shades of gray? It is better that Chinese internet users have another search engine to use, especially one that allows creative users to access information they might not otherwise find. If those ranting about Google's actions would think about the viewpoint of Chinese internet users for a minute, they may realise that Google might be helping to undo the "evil" of Chinese internet censorship.

Usually it's better to work to change systems from within, evil or not.

Other reading

Catching up on my reading, I note Will is praising Google in China and Danwei hails Google's small stand against Chinese censorship. FH points out how Google in China differs to Yahoo and MSN in some important ways. Shanghaiist also springs to Google's defence, and has a handy list of links to other posts on the topic. Anyone noticing how most of the China based blogs are backing Google? Joel sees the gaps in China's firewall and asks a great question.

On the other hand, Asiapundit is taking Google to task, but not for the obvious reasons. Check out the sample of search results. Billdue also notes how little money is at stake for Google in China.

Brad DeLong notes Google's filter only works if you can spell.

Updated 2/1

Also check out Matthew Stinson's extensive critique of Google's critics.

posted by Simon on 01.31.06 at 10:15 AM in the China internet category.


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I gotta disagree here Simon. The google issue is a big deal. This is not so much as google agreeing to the rules to play ball but rather a strong victory by the CCP.

Most had hoped the free market reforms would bring social and political freedoms to the Chinese. But ever since Hu Jintao took office we have seen the Hu move more toward the hard line conservatives in the party. Less freedoms and not more has been the result.

This episode in the google chapter is not isolated. Let's not forget that the google cache page has been disabled in some time in China. Google news was not able to be accessed as well. Blogger is still not accessible (blogspot) etc. I, along with some Chinese bloggers (http://zhengweekly.blogbus.com/logs/2006/01/1860720.html ), think that in the very near future google.com will not be available on the mainland. This is the situation now with bbc news and http://www.amnesty.org/ .

It is foolish to think that google is helping the scene by offering up google.cn and censoring content. Why? because the Chinese have alternatives. Yahoo.com, Gigablast.com, dogpile.com, etc all are available. Google had the opportunity to stand up and say, "our motto is to not be evil."

but they'd rather have access to the fastest growing internet community.

Google bad.

posted by: dave on 01.31.06 at 11:43 AM [permalink]

Dave, I don't really agree with Google's actions, but as I've stated in my comments on another site - I understand.

My comments are as follows:

I am by no means a fan of censorship. I came face to face with it in China on the occasions that I had my internet access restricted and then again after the government banned my blog host due to the content on my site. However, that being said, I do not fault Google for its choices to adhere to the Chinese governments policy of censorship.

Google is a business. Period. While it does have the responsibility to promote and engage in fair trade, it does not have any responsibility to promote democracy and freedom of speech. If you want to play ball in China, you have learn their rules and play by them.

That is not to say that I agree with everything, but I understand.

Do I think it is hypocritical of Google to bow to one governments demands while snubbing another? Not really. It's the same situation if you think about it.

If Google refused to comply with the Chinese government's policy of censorship, they'd simply be refused access to China's markets. At the same time, if Google were to comply with the American governments demands to hand over the information it wants access to, Google's business would suffer serious backlash from the American people.

Simply put, Google is just cooperating with those who wield the power. In China, it's the Chinese government. In America, it's the American people.
THM | Monday, January 30th, 2006 @ 01:13 AM

... your arguement is a fair one, but who's to say that doing business in China goes against Google's basic principles? Clearly it doesn't.

I'm sure you know that in today's world things are changing as fast as the skylines in China - by the minute. Sure, you could wait until the market matures, but by that time the opportunity will have passed you by.

China is changing and its markets are maturing. Perhaps not as fast as we westerners would like, but as you pointed out, the Chinese are much more patient than those of us from the West.

The key factor here is that it is the Westerners who are making all the noise about the censorship in China - not the Chinese. The fact is, Chinese people are not so concerned with such issues because their main focus is more on economic freedom than political freedom. Most Chinese will tell you the two go hand-in-hand, but economic freedom must come first and that is already happening. As for the political freedom - again, they are patient.
THM | Monday, January 30th, 2006 @ 02:49 PM

Again, I do not favor censorship in any form unless it involves the welfare of children.

Of course I do not believe it is okay to compromise one's principles for the sake of doing business because either you have principles and you stick to them or you never had them in the first place.

However, that being said, companies like Google have a responsibility to abide by the laws of the countries they operate in - such as China. I do not necessarily consider that to be a compromise of one's principles (depending on the circumstances).
THM | Monday, January 30th, 2006 @ 09:21 PM

If you want to read the rest of the comments, they can be found here.

posted by: Gordon on 01.31.06 at 12:10 PM [permalink]

let's again look at this from the perspective of a surfer in china.

case 1. no google.cn. does not know if he got the full info from a baidu or msn search

case 2. if google.cn shows that some links were hidden in the bottom note, he knows that he could use a proxy to search google.com

shall we call this evil or anti-evil?

posted by: sun bin on 01.31.06 at 01:18 PM [permalink]

Sorry Dave but that doesn't wash. If you're judging Google by Western standards you are omitting crucial pieces of context - in a world that is particularly imperfect, such as China's online world, part of something is far superior to a moralistic but boneheaded nothing. Google is a company, not a government, NGO, moral force or democracy provider.

Google not so bad.

posted by: Simon on 01.31.06 at 01:29 PM [permalink]

Simon, the real question is not "in or out" but "why Google decides to be an agent of chinese censorship"? Of course Google is not a NGO or a government but is it indispensable to do the dirty work for chinese despots? This is the point that many people - excusing Google - are missing, in my opinion. It looks like Google is turning self-censorship into a good and virtuous action, according to many bloggers. Sorry, but it's not.



posted by: Enzo on 01.31.06 at 04:42 PM [permalink]

Simon, if I am understadnig you right, you are saying that if many Chinese bloggers and Chinese people do not mind being directly censored by Google, who are we Westerners to complain? Some information is better than no information.

It is true that Westerners are accustomed to having some basic freedoms on the web like access to unfettered information and I think this is why we cannot be expected to condone online censorship by a Western company anywhere, not just in China. For Western bloggers to stay quiet over it or go along with it would imply that we consider the Chinese people to be second class citizens in our global economy, people who do not deserve the same equal access to information from Google that we do.

There is also another concern:

Google are not selling shaving foam. They are asking us to trust them with the world's information and ideas. If Google can be persuaded to directly censor search results in China on behalf of the Chinese government, they can be persuaded to censor search results elsewhere according to the wishes of whatever tyrant happens to be in power at the time, perhaps in the interests of National Security. Google has set a precedent for itself.

This may be acceptable to you, but it is not to us.

posted by: Noel Guinane on 01.31.06 at 06:03 PM [permalink]


I have several problems with what you've said. Firstly I'm not characterising Chinese netizens as second class citizens - they already are by the nature of the Great Firewall and the Chinese government's restrictions. That is the reality. One day I hope and know it will change. But in the interim, isn't giving more access to tools such as Google a good thing, even if the tools themselves are not 100% effective?

As for what Google is "selling", you've missed the mark. All Google and other search engines do is organise information that already exists on the web to make it more easily accessable. In fact, unlike Yahoo, Google explicitly does not make content. Even Google News is just a composite of various websites and news services. Google does censor in Western countries. From this week's Economist:

It has reached an agreement with the Chinese authorities that allows it to disclose to users, at the bottom of a list of search results, whether information has been withheld. This is similar to what the company does in other countries where it faces content restrictions, such as France and Germany (where Nazi sites are banned), and America (where it removes material that is suspected of copyright infringement). Although the disclosure is more prominent on these western sites, putting such a message on its Chinese site is an important step towards transparency and, furthermore, is something its rivals do not do.
Indeed at the same time Google is dealing with China, it is staunchly resisting a DoJ lawsuit to force it to hand over reams of customer data.

I'm not calling Google saints. I'm just saying that their actions are a fully understandable and indeed admirable course of action in a difficult situation. I'm sure they would like to offer unfettered access to their searches, but that isn't feasible. And isn't forbidding Chinese netizens access to Google.cn making them second class citzens by restricting their access to a tool common outside China?

To me all this hysteria seems largely generated by people adhereing to dogmatic principles at the expense of realpolitik. That is their right. If Chinese netizens find Google.cn no better than the current offerings, it will fail. Google has an interest in making things better, but can only do so within the constraints that exist. We don't live in utopia.

posted by: Simon on 01.31.06 at 08:52 PM [permalink]

isn't giving more access to tools such as Google a good thing, even if the tools themselves are not 100% effective?

No, not if it means Google itself has to do the censoring. All Google can do is bring its information up to a border. What filters are subsequently applied to it by sovereign governments is something Google cannot be expected to control. If the Chinese government wants to keep their people in the dark about their country's politics and history, then that's up to the Chinese people to sort out, not Google. This was the position before Google agreed to directly censor search results in China. The objection now is that Google is actively participating in helping the Chinese government to censor information. That is stepping over the line. It means Google have set a precedent that can come to affect those of us who at the moment enjoy free and unfettered access to the web.

On your suggestion that Google already engages in censorship elsewhere ... I knew about Google’s ‘censorship’ in France and Germany and think that banning access to Nazi sites or hate sites does not equate to the censorship Google have agreed to do in China which I think we can agree is widespread censorship. Google refusing in the States to show information that has been the subject of US copyright infringement complaints can also not be compared to the widespread censorship Google are actively participating in in China.

Though I agree Google organize information and make it available, I think it is fair to say that Google are "selling" something. They sell ads. You don't have to make content to sell it and I think you know this.

Indeed at the same time Google is dealing with China, it is staunchly resisting a DoJ lawsuit to force it to hand over reams of customer data.

Good point. As I asked on my blog, how can one thing be an outrage worth going into court over and the other worth only a vague disclaimer at the end of someone’s search results? What principles exactly are involved here?

You mentioned realpolitik. Censoring used to be against Google's principles. Their FAQ used to say:

Google does not censor results for any search term. The order and content of our results are completely automated; we do not manipulate our search results by hand. We believe strongly in allowing the democracy of the web to determine the inclusion and ranking of sites in our search results.

That statement was taken down immediately after they caved in to the Chinese government's demands to directly censor search results in China.

Are you saying it is okay to compromise your principles in order to get in on an opportunity?

posted by: Noel Guinane on 01.31.06 at 09:39 PM [permalink]

Simon, simply look at how Google is changing the face of history by these two quick searches;

"tiananmen square" on Google Image Search

"tiananmen square" on Google CH Image Search

Oh look, it's as if it never happened!

And where's the note that says the information has been censored because of the government? I can't see it. It just seems, simply, the information is not there, and Chinese Google users would no no differently.

posted by: Hamo on 01.31.06 at 09:42 PM [permalink]

Simon, simply look at how Google is changing the face of history by these two quick searches;

"tiananmen square" on Google Image Search

"tiananmen square" on Google CH Image Search

Oh look, it's as if it never happened!

And where's the note that says the information has been censored because of the government? I can't see it. It just seems, simply, the information is not there, and Chinese Google users would no no differently.

posted by: ham on 01.31.06 at 09:50 PM [permalink]

Oh, your comments system kept giving error messages. Oh well.

PS - What about Google's "Do No Evil" motto? I guess that's worth nothing.

posted by: Hamo on 01.31.06 at 09:52 PM [permalink]

the more this conversation goes down this path, the more dismayed the chinese internet users are. frankly, they couldn't care less about whether google.cn, google.com. google.eunuch.com is accessible or not. that is an esoteric problem for westerners. the chinese internet users will move on and use whatever tools that they have. the only difference is that they are more convinced than ever that the westerners never considered the interests of the Chinese Internet users in this matter, because the westerners were just too self-absorbed and self-indulgent. just go away, will ya?

posted by: eswn on 01.31.06 at 11:54 PM [permalink]



posted by: Gordon on 02.01.06 at 12:40 AM [permalink]

I don't think you speak for everyone, eswn. Who are you?

posted by: Noel Guinane on 02.01.06 at 12:50 AM [permalink]

Never mind. You are Roland Soong of the East South West North blog. You lived in New York City for many years before moving to Hong Kong and you claim you "know little or nothing about China." Your blog, though outspoken, has never been blocked by the PRC.

Isn't it wonderful what Google can tell you when its search results are not censored?

posted by: Noel Guinane on 02.01.06 at 01:37 AM [permalink]


At the bottom of the very search on Tiananmen Square on Google.cn you mention there is this:


"According to local regulations and policy, some search results are not displayed".

As a sidenote, my post commemerating Tiananmen Square is on the front page of Google's image search.

posted by: Simon on 02.01.06 at 08:16 AM [permalink]

Wow, it's good to see Google are being so upfront about the censored results, sticking a tiny disclaimer at the bottom of the page, where no one will look, elaborating that "some things may not be displayed".

When Google talked about this on the BBC news, they made a big deal out of the fact that when a user sees content is being blocked, they'll KNOW it's censored, they'll know they're not seeing the whole picture. Obviously that's not strictly true - only by reading the small print will you realise "something" (never referred to as censorship) is up.

posted by: Hamo on 02.01.06 at 09:03 AM [permalink]

Simon, I can't believe you don't understand the significance of the issue and its consequences.



posted by: Enzo on 02.01.06 at 10:41 PM [permalink]

what is the basis to call google a 'ccp agent', or 'censor for ccp'?

you can always go to google.com for the full search results! if you cannot access google.com, it is the fault of your ISP not google. google is now creating an alternative called google.cn so that you know which search was censored and which was not.
the more i read about the accusation, the more i feel google is doing a great thing for the intelligent surfers.

posted by: sun bin on 02.02.06 at 07:37 AM [permalink]

Ok guys, you're right.
Thank you Google for your brave self-censorship on behalf of CCP. Thank you for encouraging "intelligent sufers". Thank you for your valuable sanitized service. In Tiananmen everyone's smiling. In China everything is ok. Why worry?

The world upside down.



posted by: Enzo on 02.02.06 at 04:26 PM [permalink]

I think we in the West had better start to tone down on all our shouting on the freedom and democracy stuff, because of lately I haven't seen much happening in the name of those ideals that make me feel proud. Iraq may be the most noteworthy example, but the record is even worse for what is NOT happening. Why are we inclined to "liberate" the Iraqi's, but are we OK with watching at the sidelines while f.i.in Congo a couple of millions have been butchered by now ? What will we do in Palestine, with the Hamas victory now ? Democratically elected, but we will cut your financial support after all since you happen to have a fight with your neighbour, killing your people and refusing you to take possession of the ground you live on but who for some reason happens to be our friend. Sorry for that !
Coming back to the Google issue, with all that shouting from the West going on, the "freedom and democracy angle" is quickly becoming the standard benchmark to look at all the issues. Is it good business sense what Google did ? Of course it is. Are Google and Yahoo pioneering a new way of doing business with difficult regimes ? Hardly. Working for a telecom company myself, I know that all the major ones working in the so-called vertical markets have and are providing switches with a feature called "lawful intercept" to police departments worldwide. And what it is used for you think ? Anybody dare to believe that we control the laws defining the circumstances under which it can be used ? Dream on. Has it been sold in China ? You bet it has, so our "don't be evil" friends are in a major league of companies all making good business sense and that's what companies are for: they have to generate money to keep our societies running, whether we like the morals of it or not.

What strikes me is the lot of people trying to fit Google's principal decision to censor some searchresults into a strategy to lead freedom and democracy to victory. All I can make out of it is a company kowtowing to a regime you would not accept in your own country and thereby condoning the rightfulness of censorship. I pity the Chinese media organizations that are trying to walk a thin line who will now be told that not only their inland peers are exercising "self-constraint", but hey, even the Westerners do so. Google, in my opinion, is doing a bad service to Western companies looking to do business in China , because they have just shown the CCP that it not only can require you to abide by some perverse rules, but that it actually also can be implemented. So expect the business climate to worsen.

posted by: Lao Lu on 02.04.06 at 06:16 AM [permalink]

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