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Google in China

“…purity is an idea for a yogi or monk…
Well, I have dirty hands.
Right up to the elbows,
I’ve plunged them in filth and blood”
JP Sartre*

Google is going to censor results for Chinese users.

Andrew McLaughlin, Google’s Senior Policy Counsel, puts the problem well: “While removing search results is inconsistent with Google’s mission, providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission.”

It’s a tough world. Most of what we do is morally mixed. The consequences aren’t unambiguously good and our intentions are never pure. Google has apparently gone through some genuine soul-searching. I know Andrew and have the highest respect for him; if you had the privilege of spending time with him, you would too.

So, I find myself torn. Doing the work of a totalitarian state is bad. Of course. But Google plans on noting on results pages when results have been censored; alerting Chinese users to the fact of censorship could have a positive political effect. Apparently Google also plans on having a link to the US-hosted version. And they won’t host user data on servers under Chinese jurisdiction so they won’t have to turn users over to the Chinese police.

That helps. But is it enough?

If forced to choose — as Google has been — I’d probably do what Google is doing. It sucks, it stinks, but how would an information embargo help? It wouldn’t apply pressure on the Chinese government. Chinese citizens would not be any more likely to rise up against the government because they don’t have access to Google. Staying out of China would not lead to a more free China.

I’m not sure I’m right. Maybe my assessment of the likely consequences is wrong. And the high ground has its appeal, not least of which is that it keeps my hands clean. But the Chinese government is a big gob of repression plopped onto the middle kingdom, spattering our clean white robes.

At least it shows once and for all that Google’s motto is just silly in a world as complex as this one.

*I found the quote in this interesting discussion of Elie Wiesel’s Dawn.

Some other opinions:

Rebecca MacKinnon:

At the end of the day, this compromise puts Google a little lower on the evil scale than many other internet companies in China. But is this compromise something Google should be proud of? No. They have put a foot further into the mud. Now let’s see whether they get sucked in deeper or whether they end up holding their ground.

Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Watch:

Oh, the irony. Less than a week after we hear that Google is ready to fight the US government in part to defend its users, now comes news that Google will cave into the Chinese government’s demands for its new Google China web site. However, the issues aren’t directly comparable. Moreover, while I’m no fan of Chinese censorship, I like some of the way Google is reacting to the demands. Come along, and we’ll explore the entire censorship situation in China, the US and some other places you rarely hear discussed, like France and Germany.

Ethan Zuckerman:

The devil’s in the details. And the attention taken to detail tells me that Google has thought long and hard about what they were doing and come up with a compromise. It’s a compromise that doesn’t make me happy, that probably doesn’t make most of the people who work for Google very happy, but which has been carefully thought through. And that, I think, gives some reason for optimism.

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22 Responses to “Google in China”

  1. I would be happier–well, less unhappy–with this situation if Google had created a wholly-owned Chinese subsidiary that did not use Google’s trademarks to handle requests coming from China, and let that subsidiary follow whatever rules China insisted on imposing for censoring search results.

  2. Seth, what would your proposal make better?

  3. Google’s position may be principled to a degree (and in particular, a degree or so better than others), but it really makes no difference. Even if Google were to return completely unfiltered results, access to the links themselves would be filtered at the infrastructure level. If you have the opportunity to spend a little time with Ron Diebert of the OpenNet Initiative, you’ll hear the degree to which the ‘net is becoming, in his words, “islands of sovereign spaces carved out from cyberspace.” I’ve blogged a presentation that he gave recently. It was an eye-opener, and casts an additional light on this issue.

  4. Google can do what they want, but they really need to change their motto to from “Do no Evil” to “Minimize Evil”. The hypocracy of keeping that motto will be spectacular.

  5. “Most of what we do is morally mixed. The consequences aren’t unambiguously good and our intentions are never pure.”

    Sounds like you are trying to convince yourself of something. Bottom line is Google did not have to become the actual implementors of political censorship, but they chose too, they are trading blood for AdSense. And there’s no big gain here for freedom lovers in China to have access to a limited-but-faster Google, that is rationalization. So I’d say “shame on them”, but it would be understatement, since the correlate of political censorship is murder.

  6. I like Google, but if Google can be persuaded to censor the results they feed into China, they can be persuaded to censor elsewhere. It’s like that old saying – you can’t get a little bit pregnant.

    Here is something I found interesting:

    Back in September 2005, Baidu, the Chinese search engine, came to market in New York, and it was such a hot stock – hitting $153 a share – that people thought it signalled the beginning of another dot com-like era since Baidu were somewhat lacking in the fundamentals, e.g., revenue. I thought at the time that it was just another hot concept that in Baidu’s case combined technology with that age-old Western dream of gaining access to a billion people to sell them something, whether it’s goods, information or religion. Western businesspeople and missionaries have been seduced by this dream for centuries, but it’s never been realized and in my view never will. The Chinese will smile and take our money but China will remain China, run by the Chinese.

    My point in mentioning this is that I read with curiosity that even Google had invested in Baidu and thought … all that know-how for free. In fact, Google paid Baidu to provide it – a simultaneous picking of pockets and picking of brains!

    Now we hear that Google has agreed to censor search results in China. I understand that at times in business it’s necessary to compromise, particularly when the rewards are made to look so promising and there are strong, cash-rich competitors on the horizon, but if your only principle is continued access to potential rewards and you are willing to subordinate everything else you claimed you aspired to in return for that, then I wonder how qualified you are to be trusted with the world’s information.

    I’m not sure it is complex. There are things that clearly matter more than potential profit. Freedom, certainly freedom of information, is one of them.

  7. Noel, of course I agree that doing wrong in order to make money is a bad thing. But because life is complex, I think we can’t look at this only as an economic decision. Google enunciated principles other than the selfish ones that you, Noel, allude to in your last two paragraphs. You don’t address those arguments.

    I’m a consequentialist on this topic. I don’t see how Google’s refusing to provide any information to the Chinese helps the Chinese more than providing censored information, especially if Google does indeed point out the fact of censorship. As my post says, I’m not unmixed in my feelings, but I think I’d decide the same way Google did because of the balance of good and bad consequences.

    If I thought an information embargo would help end China’s tyranny, I’d agree with you.

  8. Brad, I’m not trying to convince myself of anything. In fact, in the first draft of this post, I disagreed with Google’s decision. But as I wrote, I changed my mind.

    I don’t care about Google’s bottom line. If making money was the only reason for them to censor Chinese results, then I’d agree with you wholeheartedly and without reservation. But I care more about the consequences for the Chinese than I do about Google’s revenues or about Google’s purity.

    My judgment about what will be best for the Chinese may certainly be wrong. My facts and my suppositions may be way off. But, if they’re not, then I think Google made the right decision.

  9. David, would you object if the United States government did a deal with Google to only feature articles positive to George Bush? Would you suspect that the motive behind a large publicly quoted company (not providing sewing machines or electric tooth whiteners, but something as valuable as access to information and ideas) agreeing to that sort of censorship might be a desire for profit?

    I do understand the argument for some information is better than no information, but agreeing to censor information won’t help end the Chinese government’s tyranny. I do not think it is a good idea to go along with censoring information according to the government’s wishes, any government. When something like that becomes accepted practice – and Microsoft and Yahoo are happy to help this along – good luck getting rid of it in the future.

    There is no doubt that the Chinese government are very clever and know how to leverage access to their emerging market. I do not see Google showing any principle here unless you can consider not excluding themselves from potential opportunity to be principled.

  10. Noel, of course Google has self-interested reasons for this decision. I don’t care about those reasons because, as we all agree, companies can’t justify immoral actions by pointing to their bottom line.

    Censoring info won’t help end Chinese tyranny, but that’s not all Google is doing. Putting in a note that censoring is happening seems to me to be a positive good, as does putting in a link to the US version. As Rebecca says, we should see if they make good on those ideas.

    And if Google stays out of China, how would that help end Chinese tyranny? Even if all non-Chinese search engines boycotted China, do you think that would pressure China into changing its ways? I don’t. They’d happily go forward with Baidu.

    So, for me it comes down to a practical question (not a question of principle): What will best help the Chinese people? I don’t think this is an easy question and I have litle confidence that my judgment is right about this. But, so far it seems to me marginally better that Google enter China the way it is (censoring but noting that fact) than withdrawing from it entirely.

    Also, because I know Andrew McLaughlin, I’m convinced in a way that you’re not that Google considered this not simply from their bottom-line point of view. But Google’s intentions are less interesting to me than its effects.

  11. Your point is reasonable. However, things like this don’t stay fixed in one spot. Google have now agreed that it is okay to censor in one country. If you like, they have set a precedent. If it’s okay to censor in China, why not somewhere else?

    An argument could be made, in the interests of national security for example, that it would be only common sense for Google to omit certain sites or certain kinds of information from its engine that the US government (or any government) said were a threat. In the future, maybe your government or my government will want to censor for whatever reason access to the information Google provides. They would have a stronger case because Google have already agreed to censor in one place. So okay, they’ll put a sign up on your search results, something like: ‘In the interests of National Security, your search results were censored.”

    How would you feel about that?

  12. Noel, as Danny Sullivan points out, Google already censors results in France and Germany in order to accord with their laws. That doesn’t affect your argument, but it will probably affect your mood :)

  13. People in China can already get search results from MSN and Yahoo. Google’s results may be slightly better, but arguing that the Chinese somehow won’t have access to information unless Google provides it is exaggerating Google’s value.

    If you or I boycotted China, it wouldn’t make much difference. But Google is one of the most prominent corporations on earth. If they give up, who else will even try?

    Google went to the financial markets and got their capital while making a promise not to be evil. They hired thousands of people under the same promise. Both groups have a right to feel that they were seriously lied to and betrayed.

    It all smells terrible. In a world where George Bush, Pat Roberts and Osama Bin Laden use “doing God’s work” as an excuse for their actions, you need to be super careful if you use “don’t be evil” as a motto.

    Google had a chance to change the perception of corporate responsibility. What are the chances an IPO will ever again go out with a motto like theirs?

    I really really hope they change their mind about this, soon.

  14. David, 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 is, as Danny Sullivan termed it in his article, “widespread censorship.”

    I think it would not be okay with you if Google censored your searches, and I do not mean refusing to show information that had been the subject of US copyright infringement complaints. I guess my purpose in asking you how you would feel about Google engaging in the same sort of censorship in the US as it is now doing in China is that I’ve found with people that they can easily condone something when it affects people somewhere else, but they don’t feel the same way when it affects them. I’m sure you’ve found this too.

  15. Funny, but I was going to make the same point with you, Noel: If you were Chinese, would you rather have Google not available, or censored Google available…remembering, of course, that the Chinese government is a tyranny that makes uncensored access to info a near impossibility.

  16. Noel, the larger issue at play here is not at the Google level, but at the governmental and infrastructural levels, and not limited to China (and Iran, Saudi Arabia, Tunis, Singapore, Pakistan, and on, and on), but includes nearly every single country in the world.

    Many American companies are providing the technology to effect censorship, filtering and surveillance on the Internet – companies like Cisco, Nortel, Secure Computing, and others. Do you not think that the U.S. portions of the Internet are not subject to Chinese-like surveillance today? Do you not think that, literally with the flick of a cyber-switch, wide swaths of the “Western” Internet couldn’t be cordoned off in the name of security, anti-terrorism, or morality?

    Google in China, to my mind, is a distraction from the pervasive surveillance/censorship/filtering issues that have infected the Internet, no longer an anarchistic, wild-west-like environment, in which anything flows. Today, it is firewalled to the hilt, a daily reality for people in dozens of countries. Here, “they” are just waiting for a spark…

  17. David, I would personally prefer Google showed a little backbone and rejected my government’s demands to censor information, drawing international attention to, and putting pressure on, what my government was doing, whether they succeeded in changing my government’s policies or not. If is this is what Google had done, I would look at Google as a company worthy of my admiration and respect, a company with the balls to stand by some universal ideals and not get pushed around by tyrants, nor willingly go along with them solely for the chance to make a little money. After caving in and agreeing to my government’s demands, it would disgust me to hear that Google were trying to lay claim to some ‘principle’ to justify what they were doing. As you can see, I have Chinese friends. ; )

    Mark, though I agree there are privacy issues to consider, I do not think what Google agreed to do in China is a distraction. I think it is a dangerous precedent because, as mentioned above, if they are willing to agree to “widespread censorship” in China, why not everywhere else according to whatever tyrant happens to be in power at the time? Again, we’re not talking about a company that sells shaving foam. Google is asking us to trust them with the world’s information and ideas. Let’s not pretend Google is anything more than another big corporation whose main concern is the performance of their stock price.

  18. I’m with Mark in terms of this:

    Today, it is firewalled to the hilt, a daily reality for people in dozens of countries. Here, “they” are just waiting for a spark..

    … and I’m with Noel regarding not precedence but drawing some kind of line somewhere (though imo the appropriate point was probably passed some time ago).

    Now, let’s see .. Google owns Blogger, Blogger has this little “Flag This” thingy on Blogger sites ,, and the way things seem to be going, who knows when *probable cause* becomes *reasonable suspicion* and sites or publications that don’t hew more or less to the party line, or don’t *support the troops* or whatever, are identified, atgged, amrked in some way and watched.

    Sure, there’s lots of watching already going on .. like i said, i believe that there must be a line to be drawn somewhere .. if not todaa, then next month, and if not next month then nest year .. but certainly at some point in time.

    Google couldn’t have found a more inviting, or more challenging, opponent (and test case for their core ideology and values) than the government of China in terms of engaging in a watershed issue for all of us. They demurred. We are all a little bit less *free* because of the demurral.

  19. “And if Google stays out of China, how would that help end Chinese tyranny?”

    A lot more than empty words at the UN.

    Everytime a Western government or company cozies up to the PRC, it is an admission that their policies are acceptable. Actions speak louder than words. If Google had refused on principle, it would have made even bigger headlines than this story, pointed out quite loudly (there’s nothing louder than action based on moral conviction) the evil of the PRC, put egg on the face of Microsoft et al, and probably been incredibly good PR for Google, earning their motto, to top things off. As it is, actions like this broadcast to the world that the PRC is actually acceptable, they are good enough to do business with, *in practice* they are okay. Not a nice message for the dissidents who face execution.

  20. By the way, I think this whole exercise also gives us a chance to look at a different aspect of the “censorship” issue.

    We’ve seen the very obvious example of politically-motivated censorship, by comparing the results from with Now, compare these two search results side by side:

    Uncensored Chinese-language Google search for Tiananmen
    Uncensored English-language Google search for Tiananmen

    How should we account for this disparity? Why is the English-speaking world’s understanding of Tiananmen limited to, apparently, 6/4 and little else? What forces, if not outright political coercion, led to the development of this myopia? And does this narrow view extend to other China-related issues beyond 6/4? If the mainland Chinese are being denied information (which I do not deny), then why is the English-speaking world *ignoring* information freely available to them?

    Note that the Chinese language search results aren’t censored, and the dataset comes from a *wide* range of Chinese-language (simplified + traditional) web sources outside of mainland China (Taiwan, HK, Singapore, BBC-Chinese, Voice of America, Falun Gong).

  21. Here are my thoughts on this:

    And this goes with it as well:

  22. Some things are just plain wrong in this world, and censorship is one of those wrong things. It’s wrong when Microsoft or Yahoo censor results or collaborate with the regime to identify and apprehend journalists who speak the truth.

    But Google gets special attention because their brand is built on trust and the Don’t Be Evil principle.

    It’s an obscene rationalization to say that some future good may come from today’s evil actions. Don’t Be Evil meant something because it didn’t equivocate. Now it’s an empty and cynical slogan that seems more like propaganda than a principle.

    It’s not too late for Google to take a stand and reverse course. And the media coverage of such an action might shame other collaborators into getting a little backbone as well.

    If you’re interested in ideas for communicating your displeasure over Google’s actions, see

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