Further Update: Google in China

April 21, 2006

Topics: Google, Privacy.

Although they’ve been receiving a lot less coverage in search engine news recently, the issues surrounding search engines and other technology companies’ behavior in China have not gone away. Search Engine Watch looked in on Google and China on April 20th, giving me a gentle reminder that this is an ongoing problem.

I don’t actually altogether agree with Danny Sullivan’s conclusions. In his final paragraph, he states:

We’ve had Google China head Kai-Fu Lee say how important insisting on and following principles should be. In the public speaking training video of Google CEO Eric Schmidt that’s making the rounds, we have him saying how important conflict and tolerance to other opinions are. Yet still caved in on both principles and tolerance when it came to doing business in China.

I’m not clear that Google has truly "caved in on both principles and tolerance". Yes, they have accepted censorship as a cost of doing business in China. Yes, censorship is a vile practice which seems to run counter to Google’s core philosophy. However, I don’t feel that Google has given in to the Chinese government to any greater degree than absolutely necessary.

These are the salient points of my argument:

  • Google was already doing business in China, because the main Google site was already accessible in the country.
  • Google was already censored in China, by the Chinese government.
  • Google has made a public statement that they will protect user privacy:

    We will not maintain on Chinese soil any services, like email, that involve personal or confidential data. This means that we will not, for example, host Gmail or Blogger, our email and blogging tools, in China.

  • Google has also stated that they will continue to make the unfiltered Chinese language Google.com service available.

All in all, these decisions suggest to me that they are simply trying to cope as best they can with a problematic situation. Google can not operate in China without cooperating with Chinese law – but they can reduce their susceptibility to that law by holding private data out of the reach of the country’s legal access.

I don’t wish to claim that Google is necessarily doing good by making their censored entry into the Chinese market; but they are certainly not doing evil. They are merely maintaining status quo, and hopefully making a profit.

If I was going to be accusing a company of unethical behavior, my fingers would not be pointing at Google. Google has been targeted largely because they have always made a major issue of their ethical practices. It is an interesting practice to make a greater note of the minor slips from those who try the hardest than the major failures of those who hardly try. Try taking a close look at Yahoo, for example, which has recently been accused (for the third time) of helping jail a Chinese dissident. Although there is not yet any solid evidence of this, it would hardly be surprising following the previous cases.

Danny also points to a fascinating piece from the New York Times Magazine called Google in China: The Big Disconnect. This lengthy article discusses cultural differences which technology companies have needed to learn and leverage for the Chinese market, and also how those differences may influence the perception of information freedom. The article is far too rich to summarize here; suffice it to say that you should read it yourself.

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