I’ve written several times before on Google’s situation in China, and have generally been supportive of their decision to move into China, despite the limitations posed on them by the Chinese government. I believe that censorship is a terrible thing; and I can’t support that particular activity – but it’s still unclear to me whether there was any reasonable business justification to ignoring the Chinese market.
Is it a greater censorship to withhold Google’s index entirely, or to provide a limited subset of their index? Maybe. However, when Google made the choice to accept China’s restrictions, they also made the choice to profit on those restrictions; and this is where the real difference lies.
The Associated Press reported yesterday on comments by Google co-founder Sergey Brin which indicated that he acknowledges that the company compromised their principles to enter the Chinese market:
We felt that perhaps we could compromise our principles but provide ultimately more information for the Chinese and be a more effective service and perhaps make more of a difference.
The sense of the article is that Google is now attempting to decide whether it is more sensible to continue with their censored project in China or to pull out of the marketplace – a possibly damning acknowledgement of their error. It’s hard to say what the public reaction may be to a withdrawal from China. On the one hand, many would be thrilled that Google had admitted their error and withdrawn. On the other, it would be a dangerous acknowledgement of a very expensive error of judgement.
The article also mentions that, apparently, most of Google’s Chinese customers are not actually using Google.cn.
Brin said Google is trying to improve its censored search service, Google.cn, before deciding whether to reverse course. He said virtually all the company’s customers in China use the non-censored service.
This, of course, makes things more complicated. If they withdraw from China not out of principle, but because their project was unsuccessful, the public perception of their withdrawal is even less likely to be positive – since the decision would perhaps be more clearly grounded in business than principle.
Perhaps, then, their goal is to make Google.cn more successful prior to withdrawing. The principled choice to abandon a thriving business venture has greater clout than the business decision to abandon a failed venture.