Why Google took the wrong course over China

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.


While I do agree 100% with what you said about google and its chinese service, I must point out something that's a bit wrong about "yahoo released that poor guy's data to the chinese and got him jailed"

Here's part of what I posted as a followup to a related post in another blog - http://joi.ito.com/archives/2006/02/10/subpoena_disclosures_to_protect_privacy.html

it must be remembered that not all yahoo.com.* domains are actually yahoo - quite often they are cobrands with one local portal or the other, with different corporate and other hierarchies. Yahoo China is actually managed and operated by local b2b portal Alibaba.com.

So, what happened was that police in Beijing subpoena'd data for a chinese citizen, from a corporation headquartered in Beijing, China.
Extra territorial enforcement would have been far tougher, and typically managed through MLATs - mutual legal assistance treaties - between law enforcement bodies in different countries. The OECD has done some research on this - http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/18/43/34886680.pdf

Here's Jerry Yang on why yahoo decided to partner with a local Chinese outfit and release management and operational control to them - http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/aug2005/tc20050812_2399.htm

Hong Kong companies and residence do enjoy a certain greater degree of autonomy and freedom of speech than in the mainland, but if push comes to shove, it'd be great to remember something called article 23 of Hong Kong's "basic law" ..

If you a) think Google is doing the wrong thing in China
and b) think that, despite the pros and cons, a boycott is
a correct form of protest (both statements reflect my own
views as well, by the way), wouldn't it make sense for you
to boycott Google, in particular AdSense? You are reasonably
well known on the net, and a high-profile boycott by you could
actually do some good.

Of course, you would lose some revenue. That's always been the
argument of those opposed to boycotts.

Put your money where your mouth is!

As I said, the line that should not be crossed is from engagement to collaboration. There can be honest debate about simply doing business in or with a country or company that's doing something wrong. It's actively helping them do wrong that's clearly over the line.

I don't believe adsense publishers are participating in Google's facilitation of Chinese censorship. If they were I would indeed withdraw from the program and encourage others to do so. And Google is still a pretty decent company on the whole -- though it's made a serious mistake here.

The people who advertise by with AdSense might not be doing
evil, and it is true that they would be hurt by a boycott.
However, boycotts always have "collateral damage" and I don't
think that any companies would be seriously damage if they can't
advertise on your web pages, or indeed even if they can't advertise
with AdSense at all.

The point is a different one. The point is that Google itself also
profits from the AdSense ads. The boycott would be aimed at Google,
not at the folks who advertise with AdSense.

The danger is that if Google is seen as the least of all evils, then
as long as this remains true, no matter who evil, in absolute terms,
they are, then they will become evil. A high-profile boycott
directed at the China problem might wake up some people.

I've taken adsense off of my blog, and convinced my cohorts to drop the service from our shared page advertising our pro bono law work (jd here). I called google adsense (the only number that can reach a person at google from what i can tell), and told them of these actions. This latter step is __the most important action__ in a boycott. I'm going to be migrating away from my googlemail account and telling the adsense office of that too.

When I spoke with the woman at adsense, I explained that we were taking our sites off of their list because we can't do business with a company that actively engaging in censorship. She asked me, "In China, you mean?" I said, "Yes, and who knows where else." She sincerely and contritely thanked me for calling. Flipping the insiders is a viable strategy. Who wants to be accused of "just following orders"?

While you're certainly right about Google having crossed the line, I'd still say that the line should, to really "not be evil", be drawn at the "doing business in" stage. Doing business in a repressive country means having to abide by its repressive laws, which will, sooner or later (and especially in the case of an Internet search engine), involve a conflict between not being evil and not being illegal.

Complicity with tyranny is as evil as active collaboration.

Besides, a company with Google's resources ought to be able to easily put serious weight behind strong anonymity and privacy technologies, and usher in a global revolution of free expression.

That they aren't doing anything in this direction at all, while exposing their users to serious privacy risks through their policy of logging all user queries forever, pretty much proves that the "don't be evil" motto is simply an empty public relations gimmick, and not really a guiding principle at Google.

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overall i don't know if google news is good. I think it is though, and by a far measure. Anyhow, i have some comments regarding your thoughts.

you quoted about how a Chinese is put to jail by the Chinese officials in China thru yahoo's help. I'm sure this news is flying all over the wasp land like wildfire and instantaneously made the wasps shake their heads. The assumption, never said and just about never thought by the wasps, was caused by a implicit racism built into the wasps's skins.

If a journalist who crossed USA laws and got put to jail by the US justice system (such as posting kiddie porn), would the wasps all cry foul the same level as the chinese case?

secondly, also intimately tied to the skins of human animals, is the issues of respecting other nations. Every wasp is built with the thought that a political system opposite from their own — communism — is evil. I'm sure you are aware, as the head of EFF, there there are rather countless opinions by dignitaries that the USA is a major cause of atrocities and deaths in the modern era. The Chinese, has their own government and their own laws. What is with this thought, that the WASP has the "right" to tell other nations what their laws should be? Isn't it well know among “freedom of expression” circles that in the WASP land, there are high censorships in many matters touching their religious nerves such as when it comes to sex? Didn't the USA, recently just passed another law or stuff that harassed and shaked the porn industry? Fucking in the ass, are a first class crime (felony) in the US in many states if not still so today. Should China put military pressure on US for this infringe of human freedom?

Ok, maybe that journalist is really trying to say something really benign by all cultural and historical measures and he really shouldn't be put to jail and the Chinese laws on public communication is truly fucked up by all cultural and political thoughts and must be condemned. Ok, maybe communism is truly evil that it must be raped, and killed for the peace of the world. If these were true, they are inconsequential to the wasps behaviors and thoughts anyway. Because, the wasp's behaviors didn't came as a result of rational thought, but instinctively because it makes the other clan looks bad.

Human animal acts in general behaves to advance self, family, clan, nation, and his skin color. This is so since time immemorial, and it is so today. It is not by rational thought. It is built in, instinctive, and manifests in every little bodily expressions and behaviors, that collectively far out-weight any actual explict actions. By denying this truth and other truths of the nature of animals (as the WASPs are taught to do with their racism-justice obsession, and their obessions with the non-entity of “rights” and “ethics”), the violent conflicts of human animals will propergate more so than naturally, in a seemingly complex way.

∑ http://xahlee.org/

First, of course the U.S. is guilty of much evil, and that has become
rather well known recently. Yes, I think the U.S. should be
boycotted, for the same reason South Africa was boycotted during the
apartheid times: disrespect for basic human rights. And I think China
should be boycotted for the same reason.

Some of the points you mention are valid. It IS ludicrous for the
U.S. to criticise other countries on human-rights issues when they
legislate against certain things adults do in private.

Of course, anyone doing business in a country is expected to abide by
the laws of that country. That's not the question. The question is
whether Google should do business in China at all. The boycott is for
people outside of China to boycott Google outside of China.

A parallel would be a European company operating in the U.S. helping
the local sheriff arrest married couples having anal sex. I think a
boycott by the European (and other) users of that company would be a
good idea.

One can't expect to be given special treatment if one breaks the
laws of a country which one does not like. However, one can and
should protest against such laws, form inside and from outside the
country, and encourage others to do so. If companies would rather
not do business in a country where there are bad laws, that is a
good thing and should be supported.

National laws, of course, are not sacrosanct. Human rights are
absolute and can't be taken out of existence just because some
government doesn't like them. It is perfectly legitimate for
individuals and governments to criticise unjust laws. He who thinks
otherwise, namely that the "internal affairs" of a country should
not be criticised from outside, would presumably not have criticised
Nazi Germany for killing Jews (who, after all, were German citizens).

I'm fairly sure you'd have a better idea if this was the case than would I...

Yahoo! divulging of a user's identity was about the only example that Jane and Joe Public knew of such complicity until the Google affair ignited enough concern to create work for hundreds of Congressional staffers. So did Google's action actually result in a net good overall?

What does one do if one sells too much of one's company to people only interested in profit, and then ethical though not legal dilemmas arise? Would Google execs be guilty of harming profitability if they had not offered a Chinese Weasel version? Yet now they might be guilty of harming the business if they continue to offer it, due to (at least) negative PR. So didn't we all move in a net positive direction due to Google's initial actions?

I'm not agreeing with the actions, just suggesting that a clever company leader might use this as a device to get someone else (the U.S. public) to make a decision he didn't really care to make.

Feasible? Or did I have too many Conspiracy-Frosted Sugar Bombs for breakfast?

While I'm not 100% certain how I feel about Google doing business in China, I believe it is unreasonable to assert in absolute terms that its choice is 'wrong'.

I think we all know by now that any company providing information in China must abide by the country's censorship rules. And the majority of us seem to believe that those rules are, in fact, 'wrong' (myself included). But your essay dismisses far too easily the fact that the net total information available to Chinese users is greater than before. It also completely ignores the fact that Google's is hardly the only viable search engine there -- Yahoo has been there for some time, and is complicit in much greater abuses than Google has been accused of; Alibaba and Baidu are present as well; and if Microsoft were to enter that market, I doubt anyone would raise an eyebrow. Google's absence would hardly be a great burden on the ruling party.

Therefore, Google can either stay out of the market and cede it to companies that clearly have _no concern whatsoever_ about implementing the Chinese government's censhorship and surveillance regime -- or it can enter the market and do what it can to work towards a more open system. It is already the only big search engine (to my knowledge) to warn users that its results are being censored. The company also explicitly chose not to make available those services which would expose its users' personal data to government scrutiny. Note that Google has a similar policy with regards to the censhorship laws in the US (DMCA requests) and Europe (Nazi Memorabilia, among other things). It is clearly in that company's interest to keep information flowing freely wherever possible.

So as I see it, you can either take an absolute stand that amounts to pissing in the wind, or you can make the hard (and apparently unpopular) decision to do business in China -- accepting that it will take a long time and a lot of work to make things better.

On a side note -- there is a very crucial difference between the problem of apartheid in South Africa and the current situation in China: many South Africans explicitly called for a boycott of their own country; Chinese citizens, on the other hand, have tended to be up in arms whenever Google is unavailable. If there was a clearer mandate from the Chinese citizenry requesting that information companies boycott their country, it would be a different story altogether.

Actually, what I said was it was a complex issue, with many factors I cited (including some you name) but that the my final analysis says Google took the wrong course. Many Google employees believe this as well. Even Google management has said that they see believe that positions like mine are valid to hold.

So I'm not sure why my saying that their course is, on balance of a number of factors I cited wrong, is some sort of absolute assertion. How should I rewrite it?

The question of "If we don't do it, somebody else will, and more, they will do it worse" is also a complex one. When this is argued the argument always seems fairly rational. Yet when viewed from a distance, it usually ends up wrong. So much evil in the world gets done for that locally rational reason. So if this argument is ever right, how can you identify the times when it is?

I think you will find that many, many Chinese (almost surely greater in absolute numbers than the entire population of South Africa) want action against the government. Certainly all members of Falun Gong, huge numbers of Tibetans, etc. All those who marched in Tien an Men whose pictures Google won't show. And how many who saw the pictures of the tanks and are scared to stand up -- I don't know.

Your post is excellent, as always, but there are a number of arguments that are orthogonal to what you wrote.

1. It is illegal to discuss The Great Firewall of China within China. However, as a result of the press that Google is getting, people in China are now talking about it; communist party members are writing memos and position papers saying that the wall should be removed. None of that would have happened if Google didn't do what they did.

2. Before all this, most people outside of China didn't know The Great Firewall of China existed. Now everyone in the world knows. China can't speak internationally without someone bringing it up. China can't interact with other countries without the issue being on the table, and it shames them.

Why didn't that happen when Yahoo entered China?

3. Google puts a bit of text saying that the results would have been better if your government wasn't censoring you. This message only appears if search results were dropped. No other search engine does this. I'd rather have children in China growing up questioning "why do I get that message when I search for 'democracy' or when looking for vacation/tourist packages near 'Tiananmen Square'?" will have more political impact than we can imagine. (Just like bringing Dallas and MTV to Russia accelerated the fall of the USSR.)

4. Google should get points for the fact that they are censoring exactly the search results as requested, nothing more. Other search engines are dropping a lot more "just in case" (they are being sloppy and careless.) They aren't labeling the results as lower quality due to censorship. Those search engines should be publicly berated at least as much as Google, if not more.

This is a multifacited issue, and there is, as Google says, going to be good coming from this.

One thing I wonder about, and honestly can't answer. From a purely business standpoint, which is better? When China becomes free -- and it will, will the goodwill given to those who fought the fight to make it free make up for the early market share gained by collaborators?

And what about "fighting collaborators" as your post suggests is the real role of Google?

I would like to hope so. That it is better to be Rosa Parks than the bus driver who was just following the law. To be Edward R. Murrow and CBS instead of Senator McCarthy and the people who didn't fight him.

Sometimes it's true. Sometimes (such as companies that collaborated with the Nazis or even used slave labour) it seems to not be. In many ways I think it may even be sometimes worth it to punish the later generation people at Ford, BMW, Bayer, Diamler and others, even though the modern people didn't do anything, they're just living off the benefits of it. On the other hand I'm usually wary of any post-generational punishments, much better to figure things out in the same generation. We would do it to send the message that "You will never gain more than temporary advantage from doing this. In the end, you will regret it."

Though even this is not enough. Athletes use steroids even though it seems in the end they are often caught and shamed. The temporary success seems enough.

I would like it to be clear that fighting is the right choice from a business sense, because then we would not have to worry about our business choices and our ethical ones putting us at odds.

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