Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Do The Right Thing, Google

It looks like Google may have found a reason to backslide (for ungated, try NYT) on one of its (only) stupid commitments: providing search in China at the expense of censoring some searches the Chinese government deems too morally offensive for consumption. Like Tiananmen Square.

Google's servers came under heavy cyber attack from Chinese sources, including efforts to hack the Gmail accounts of human rights activists in the country. Additionally, attempts were made to steal information from 34 other companies, many of which hail from Silicon Valley. Now Google is saying it will desist in censoring content on its China affiliate,, and may exit the country altogether. Unsurprisingly, some of this news was itself censored in China.

This newfound backbone toward China is admirable, even if it comes after an initial cave-in to Chinese censors in 2006. But the backbone is also necessary for business. As Google has told numerous people, its business model becomes untenable the instant people no longer trust the company with oodles of personal data. For Chinese activists, the dissemination of such information could easily lead to their arrest and imprisonment.

But even if their is a sensible economic reason for leaving China, that fact should not erode the superior value of the moral reason. Here's a quote from the initial Times article:

“The consequences of not playing the China market could be very big for any company, but particularly for an Internet company that makes its money from advertising,” said David B. Yoffie, a Harvard Business School professor. Mr. Yoffie said advertising played an even bigger role in the Internet in China than it did in the United States.
And the WSJ also makes sure to give a sense of China's strategic importance:
Google's revenue in China is relatively small, with analysts estimating only a few percentage points of Google's nearly $22 billion in 2008 revenue came from the nation. But the country's massive number of Internet users has made it strategically important for Google, as it tried to extend its dominance in search and search advertising around the globe.
No surprises here: China has a billion-plus people, who will be increasingly linked in to the web and in need of search services (although Baidu currently has a massive market share there). That is, there are a billion-plus potential advertising consumers to be tapped. So what. It is about time for the worldwide business class to decelerate the growing wave of Sinophilia. We know, guys, you're enamored with the country's explosive growth rate -- assuming the numbers aren't too manufactured -- and deep market for future goods and services. But forget illiberal democracy; China has a straight-up authoritarian regime that imprisons human rights proponents and is happy to endorse genocidal/authoritarian states like Sudan if it means access to natural resources. (In all fairness, so does the United States.) If non-Chinese companies choose not to bless the Chinese government with everything necessary to build its rich-authoritarian economic utopia, so be it.

There will be consequences to a Google withdrawl. Chinese citizens will lose access to the most efficient aggregator of information the world has ever known. But Google -- unlike most international companies -- had to break its hallowed "Don't Be Evil" mission statement and sell part of its idealistic soul to operate there. It's about time China stops getting everything it wants by virtue of its economic potential and starts giving a little. Perhaps Google-like exits by other companies -- such as those that came under assault last week --  will further couch personal and economic choice arguments within the higher aspiration of human rights. The more China grows, the more inextricable these aims become.


  1. I don't entirely understand the connection between this move and the gmail attacks. It seems like malicious Chinese hackers would have been able to do that damage whether or not was in business over there.

  2. I think people believe that the Chinese government was complicit in the attacks, because of the infiltration of human rights activists' accounts. If that's the case, Google is sending them a nice big 'fuck you' with their decision not to abide by censorship rules anymore.