Thursday, January 26, 2006

Google kowtows to Chinese government with self-censorship

Do No Evil. Don't Be Evil. I'm sure you've heard that before. Google's slogan, good behavior and financial performance has made it a media and Wall Street darling. The first line of their own corporate overview states that "Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." [emphasis added] They go on to state that "[w]hile many companies claim to put their customers first, few are able to resist the temptation to make small sacrifices to increase shareholder value." Lately, it seems that financial interests are starting to undermine its relatively progressive (when compared with most large corporations) philosophy. After all, as they say, "Google is a business."

Google's recent move to kowtow to the Chinese government's demand to censor its searches has wide ranging implications for not only Google, but other companies that may follow Google's lead. Google, having put themselves into the position of moral authority, has been able set precedents in the American court system. Just last week, they won a case establishing that Google Cache constitutes fair use, which will certainly be cited in future copyfight cases. The day before brought a demand for search data from the Department of Justice to which Google refused to comply, side-stepping an unsettling precedent with regards to privacy (even if that wasn't their stated intent). The point is, companies are watching Google for queues about how they should behave. Like it or not, Google is setting a precedent of a different kind by complying with the Chinese government's requests.

Ultimately, it's the Chinese people that continue to pay the price for this suppression of information. Philip Lenssen has compiled a list cataloguing the variance found in search results from both www.google.com (the US version) and www.google.cn (the Chinese version). In it, search terms such as "tibet," "human rights china," and "tiananmen massacre" yielded some interesting results:
  • Tibet: 47,200,000 matches at Google.com vs. 14,100,000 at Google.cn
  • Human rights China: 102,000,000 vs. 33,300,000 matches
  • Tiananmen massacre: 541,000 vs. 1,050
  • Falun Gong: 2,750,000 vs. 11,900
And for good measure:
  • Playboy: 48,900,000 vs. 17,700,000 matches
  • Fuck: 89,600,000 vs. 189,000
There are a couple threads about this on Slashdot, with some lively discussion (as always). I encourage you to read them. Here are some choice quotes:
lamasquerade (172547):
Google is an informaiton [sic] company. Their entire existence is justified by making access to and use of information easier. If they censor that information based on the petty politics of nationalists (or any other political concern) then they are not serving their purpose. They are in fact reinforcing the policies of censorship and repression in China.

BewireNomali (618969):
I'd trip over myself to do business in China. Are you kidding me? Also, you lamers don't realize that Google in China would do more to erode the government's power than not? It's better for the young Chinese that Google be there, censorship or no.
Bambi Francisco expands on Google's need to reach the Chinese audience in an article for Yahoo! Finance, Singapore:
Google is expected to report $4.03 billion in sales for all of last year and to generate $6.55 billion this year. By comparison, Baidu.com Inc. (BIDU) - the leading search engine in China - generated $38 million in sales in 2004 and $72 million in 2005.

While China's potential revenue may be a rounding error today, the search engine is implicitly saying that not to work in China will be a much larger error a decade from now.

Once you start adding up the sales across the Chinese Internet companies, the numbers do get larger. The 2005 combined revenue of Sohu.com Inc. (SOHU), Sina Corp. (SINA), Shanda Interactive Entertainment Ltd. (SNDA) and NetEase.com Inc. (NTES) is $748 million.
Google's position on the matter is that "while removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission."

Anders Bylund at ArsTechnica goes further to point out the obvious hypocrisy in this statement:
[Reporters Without Borders'] point about Google's hypocrisy looks spot on: the company is bending and twisting the language of its own mission statement in an effort to make it look like going into the Chinese market is the Right Thing To Do™, even under heavy censorship. From our vantage point here at the Orbiting HQ, it looks like an effort to justify going after the almighty Yuan before someone else starts to dominate that market. And what about the hard-line attitude to that American subpoena?
Although hypocritical, maybe there is a nugget of truth in Google's statement. Perhaps by just being there, even under censor, they can make a difference. History has shown that it's nearly impossible to filter the almighty Internet. I took the search engine for a spin and found that the top two search results for "Tibet" were links to www.tibet.org and www.tibet.com, the latter being the website for the Tibetan Government in Exile, which is pretty high up on the Chinese government's shit-list. I'm pretty sure that it will only be a matter of time before those results are stripped from the searches, but the information wants to be found. The idealist in me hopes that the information will find a way to seep through, but time will tell.

As said on Slashdot, "at least they have MS and Y! to keep them company."

Another contributor suggested they add a caveat to their slogan:
Do no evil(*)

(*) Void where prohibited

2 Comments:

Anonymous wee said...

Their corporate motto is not "Do no evil". It's "Don't be evil".

Semantics aside, I think there's an important distinction between the two.

Tue Feb 28, 01:03:00 PM PST  
Blogger brad77 said...

You're right. There is an important distinction to be made. Strangely enough, the top result of a Google search for "Do No Evil" turns up their corporate philosophy, even though the words don't show up on the page. The cached version of the page states that "[t]hese terms only appear in links pointing to this page." Apparently a lot of people aren't making that distinction.

Apparently, the motto was coined by founder Sergey Brin, and it was indeed "Don't Be Evil." Using "Do No Evil" does lean towards the sensational, and may do critics a disservice.

Thanks for pointing that out. I'll avoid it in the future.

Tue Feb 28, 01:43:00 PM PST  

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