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Google and Censorship in China

An About Web Search Editorial

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Recently, Google has also come under fire for its compliance with Chinese censoring demands. Google believes as a company, or at least they've written down that they believe this, that in their position as arguably the world's biggest search company that they must be careful to follow a moral code of ethics; "Don't Be Evil", in other words. Basically it's a long-term philosophy that governs Google's decisions - it seems that they try to make business decisions that will hold up in terms of many years rather than attempting to make a quick buck.

Google has always been all about the user: their simple design, ease of use, and overall excellence is targeted towards the best user experience possible. 'Don't Be Evil' is just another part of accomplishing their goals for the searcher, at least in theory.

Right now (February 2005), Google is complying with China's in-country laws, and searchers in China can use Google to search the Web; albeit a censored one. Google is actually choosing to censor itself in accordance with a constantly updated list of unacceptable terms to the Chinese government. So, on one hand, you could argue that Google is making at least some information available to searchers in China, and is establishing a presence there when and if China decides to improve its policies.

However, there's a school of thought that Google (and other search companies) should have stood up to China and upheld it's mantra of "Don't Be Evil", and completely refused to do business with China until they changed their censorship policies. Google's mission statement includes this blurb: "organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful." Obviously, choosing to censor information in China does not go along with that.

Google had a choice: to disappear entirely from China and miss out on an enormous search market, or comply at least temporarily with China's censorship demands. They didn't HAVE to be in China, they chose to be in China, and one could argue that it's because of money.

Bottom line is this: Google chose to comply with a sovereign country's rules and regulations. Google decided that it was willing to pay the price China was asking to get into a vastly untapped search market,and unfortunately that price included censorship.

My personal opinion is that Google sold itself out in order to get a presence into China. Their reasoning (from the official Google blog) for the censorship compliancy was so that "users could have a better search experience" - just with Google, since there's plenty of other search engines that already have a presence in China (Baidu, Yahoo, MSN, to name a few).

Unfortunately, this is a bit of the "if you give a mouse a cookie" scenario, because if Google is self-censoring now according to Chinese demands, what's to stop China from requesting that Google turn over mass search records in a year from now? And at that point, how hard will it be for Google to extriacate itself from a probably highly lucrative market in order to protect potentially violated human rights?

It seems to me that the mantra of "Don't Be Evil" has unfortunately taken a bit of (hopefully temporary) back seat. Google, as an extremely influential company, had the opportunity to take a moral stand and refuse to cave in to the Chinese government's requests; yet it chose not to do so. It seems that we've come a long way from the couple of idealistic guys in their Menlo Park garage.

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