Monday, January 18, 2010

Should Google Leave China?

The government of the People's Republic of China has only nominal regard for freedom of speech. It considers censorship part of its job, and so for years now, any internet service provider or search-engine operator in the PRC has had to agree to restrictions on what kinds of things can be searched for and what kinds of private information the government can get its hands on. U.-S.-based companies such as Yahoo and Google have been criticized for giving in to these conditions in the past, and with some justification. If freedom of speech is worth preserving in the U. S., why should it be sacrificed as a cost of doing business in China? But it looks like at least Google is having second thoughts about the whole idea.

According to a New York Times article last week, Google has announced that it will "stop cooperating with Chinese Internet censorship," and is thinking about whether to shut down its activity in the country altogether. A look at Google's history with China is of help in understanding how things came to this pass.

Google began Chinese-based operations in 2006 under the condition that it would cooperate with government-imposed restrictions on what its search engines could provide users. As you can imagine, the whole process of doing searches in Chinese is a very different thing than it is in English or other languages. Nevertheless, Google's Chinese operation reportedly made good progress, but up to now lags considerably behind the search-engine leader in that country, an outfit called Baidu that has close ties to the government. Google's famous ethics motto—"Don't be evil"—obviously leaves something to be desired in the definition department (what's evil?), but Chinese censorship enforced by Google was always a blot on their otherwise fairly clean corporate reputation.

Censorship is not the only reason Google is thinking of leaving. China has been the apparent source of numerous cyberattacks and attempts to hack into private systems. Just a week before Google's announcement, another batch of attacks targeted Silicon Valley companies and Chinese human-rights activists. This starts to look like the worst kind of government-encouraged corporate spying, with a little suppression of free speech thrown in.

Google is right to consider washing its hands of China, but so far the firm has taken only limited action: saying it will try to establish a new arrangement with the government in order to provide uncensored search results. But these negotiations are unlikely to go anywhere, so Google may have to follow up its threats with action. Leaving China for good would shut it out of the huge and growing Chinese market for the foreseeable future, and would undoubtedly hurt the company's bottom line. But Google has a pretty large bottom line these days, not having had a big exposure in mortgage-backed securities or other investments that have tanked in the last couple of years. Whatever its flaws, Google has demonstrated some of the pre-eminent virtues of free-market capitalism in how two college students with a good idea were able to create a multi-billion-dollar organization that has changed the way billions of people live, and mostly for the better. But this achievement rested on some key philosophical principles.

The fundamental philosophy of Google—that sharing information is better than not sharing it—is in direct conflict with the fundamental fear-based pragmatism of the Chinese government. Whether or not Google quits China altogether, these two philosophies will always be in conflict. Up to now, Google's management may have thought that working from within China could lead to at least marginal improvements in freedom of speech, and the history of their three to five years there is marked by disputes and struggles to maintain or expand such freedoms. But the government holds the Internet plug in its hands, and a large corporation like Google can't play at Internet guerrilla warfare. They have to operate in the open, in full view of the government. So leaving may be the best thing to do.

The Internet is a good example of how technology usually has built-in biases that give the lie to the old saying that "technology is neutral, only the way people use it has ethical implications." The Internet's very technological structure is democratic, not hierarchical. Every Internet address is in principle as accessible as every other address. While individual sites can pile up hierarchies to the moon and cause users to drill down dozens of layers to get to where they want to be, the Internet itself is a remarkably "flat" place. This was evidently the intention of the early designers of the Internet, who formed a pretty homogeneous community (physicists, computer scientists, and the like) and who little imagined that their cute idea of inter-computer communication would one day be used by Islamic jihadists to recruit airline bombers. Or, would be used by hospitals to allow telemedicine to save lives.

Google is currently struggling with an ethical choice—not a simple one by any means, but significant ethical choices are sometimes not simple. By leaving China, they would send a message to the government leaders that actions have consequences. Whether that message will get through remains to be seen. But I hope they send it nonetheless.

Sources: The New York Times article on Google's announcement of Jan. 12 is at

NOTE TO READERS, especially those who took the time to email me after my query last week: I heard from five of you. Three were people I'd never heard from before, one was a fellow who emailed me a few months ago, and one is a friend I've known since 1980. Given that direct mail usually has less than a 10% success rate, I'm going to assume that means I have at least fifty or so readers. That's a nice comfortable number, and so I will look forward to bringing this blog to you with improved quality and hopes that every so often it will make a positive difference in your life.

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