Google’s decision to operate a search service in China, implementing Chinese censorship rules into the service, has been a controversial issue. Inside Google itself, it is reported there was much debate, with many staff supporting and many staff opposing the final decision, as as been the case in the public. So it’s not a simple issue.
Nonetheless, in spite of being friends with many in the company, I have to say they made the wrong decision, for the wrong reason.
Google, and many others including other search engines, argue that their presence there, even censored, will be good for the ordinary Chinese people. The old uncensored google.com is just as available today as it was before, which is to say it works much of the time but is often blocked by the so-called great firewall of China, and blocked in frustrating ways. So, Google can claim it hasn’t taken any information access away from the Chinese, only added more reliable access to the information not banned by the Chinese regime.
To some credit, Google could have moved into China much earlier. Competitors, like Yahoo, got more involved sooner, with poor results for press freedom.
Furthermore, most people agree that search engines, including Google, have been a great and powerful force for increasing access to information of all sorts, and that it will help the Chinese people to get more access to them. We can even take heart that the Chinese regime’s censorship efforts will be futile in the face of the internet’s remarkable ability to route around such barriers.
The point that is missed is that all these claims of benefit can be true, and it can still be the wrong decision.
15 years ago, when I was publishing an online newspaper, I got a customer at a university in apartheid-ruled South Africa. I did not want to do business with South Africa, but I hadn’t investigated things much. My feed was not to be censored, so it would only be a positive influence. They convinced me to do it.
However, later, I asked South Africans about the boycotts. Most agreed that the boycotts were hurting the ordinary South African, the poor black South African, more than they were hurting the ruling Broderbund. That “engagement” (non-boycott) resulted in more good than harm at the individual level. But, in spite of this, many of them said, “Please boycott!”
Why? Because it was doing something. Selling to South Africa was the ordinary path, acting like nothing was going on there. It sent no message, made no statement, was even a light endorsement. Boycotting was the active course, an act of defiance, an act of protest.
Google’s course, however, turns out to be clearer. There are many levels of engagement. We all do business with China; it seems half our clothes and manufactured goods come from there. Only a few call for a boycott of China entirely. Even though we’ve seen, painfully, that just by doing business in China, Yahoo has felt itself compelled to turn over the identity of a reporter to the police so that he could be jailed for a decade.
But Google decided to go beyond doing business in China. They are not just doing business in a repressive country. They have agreed to become the actual implementer of the repression. Their code, their servers, do the censorship.
They are not just selling goods to a repressive country, they are selling arms, to put it in extreme terms.
And that’s too far. That is collaboration, not merely engagement. And that’s where the line must be drawn to “not be evil.”
Serving queries may help the individual Chinese in the short run. Not serving them, however, makes a bold statement, a message to China and to Google’s competitors that can’t be missed, and helps the Chinese people even more in the long run.
Addendum: There’s another reason this is a problem — it makes the people using google.com easier to spot.