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Monday, February 20, 2006

Google.cn: The Internet As Beijing Sees It

In November, I wrote an article and referenced a trip that ICMediaDirect.com's VP of Business Development, Diana Lee, took to China. She participated in Shanghai's inaugural ad:tech conference. It was a great trip and our company's ties with China are stronger because of it. Like most Western companies doing business in China, we're just doing business and there are no extenuating circumstances. Google, the giant search engine, cannot say the same.

China is an economic giant warming up to the power of the Internet, but this hasn't been a perfect marriage so far. Centralized power and the decentralized nature of the Internet do not mesh well. Beijing feels compelled to exercise tight control over whatever flow of information they can in order to stifle potential dissent within Chinese society. A governmental missive from 2000 states plainly that Internet providers must restrict information that may "harm the dignity and interests of the state". And it is into the centrally run, Communist waters that Google waded into last week as they introduced their localized Chinese search engine, Google.cn.

Google.com was already available to Internet users in China, but the search engine launched Google.cn with the purpose of staying competitive in the market, as China already has some big search engines of their own, Baidu specifically. But there is a price to pay. In a stance wholly contradictory to its stated purpose Google must censor websites that the Chinese government finds threatening. Just a few of these sites deemed not kosher include: Bacardi.com, date.com, collegehumor.com, jackdaniels.com, news.bbc.co.uk, pressfreedom.com, queernet.org, and teenpregnancy.org. So, in addition to sites deemed critical to Beijing, websites concerning sëx, alcohol, and controversial issues are forbidden on Google.cn, as well.

Now consider an excerpt from Google's IPO filing that reads: "Don't be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served - as shareholders and in all other ways - by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains. This is an important aspect of our culture and is broadly shared within the company."

Google's foray into China is directly contradicting their exuberant IPO statement. Perhaps they took idealism a little too seriously, but that's forgivable. To date, none of Google's actions have really amounted to anything more than wearing some egg on their face. But Google isn't just any old company hawking its products. These are historic times for the Mountain View, CA bunch, and over the next few years their presence in China will amount to much more than a search engine that censored Playboy.com for the Communist government there.

If nothing else, the last two or three years have shown us the inherent strength of the search engine - and none more than Google. And I believe that an unintended consequence of Google's controversial stance in China has an awareness increase of just how influential search results can be. Comparisons of "Tiananmen" searches are illustrating this. Several blogs are showing split screen stills of keyword results using "Tiananmen" on Google Images. Google.cn shows picture after picture of a lovely park, while Google.com shows a screen full of those infamous images of a lone protestor in front of menacing tanks. Just one example of real time censorship is being beamed live over the internet, brought to you by Google. It makes for unintentional and terrible publicity for Google. Oddly timed, too, considering Google's righteous defense here in the United States against government intrusion into their own affairs.

From a business perspective Google's position is sound and totally understandable. They knew they were in for a lump or two for caving to Beijing. They said that providing some information is better than providing none at all. In their own defense, Google cited that less than 2% of websites were to be censored on Google.cn - a mere pittance - yet this is the same company that derided Yahoo for having as little as 1% of their index as paid inclusion. Then it was about principle. Now it's about business. Principle, not surprisingly, can go take a hike.

I repeat, Google's position is not wrong. It's almost silly to envision a leading global company that can maintain preeminence while staying true to a lofty (and now meaningless) definition of "Do No Evil". But in a darkly ironic twist, Google may someday find themselves in situations of flat out "We Do Evil Right".

A benefit of search is privacy and Google backs user privacy to the hilt here in the United States. Think of what privacy means to users - people can seek help for alcohol and drug problems without fear of ostracism, they can test the job market without making waves, ask questïons they may feel embarrassed asking someone they know - all anonymously. Maybe we take this for granted, but this is a powerful and useful asset for us.

Could anyone actually believe that Google will protect Chinese Internet users if the powers in Beijing started making demands for private search information on Chinese searches? Google has entered China on Beijing's terms, compromised. When issues of ethics arise Google won't have much to say because they are clearly in China for the dough. The power of search, that we see in China, can - and let's be frank, will be used against the people someday. This would make Google, of "Do No Evil" fame - somewhat complicit.

Until some big changes occur in Beijing I foresee much awkwardness for the "Do No Evil" bunch's operation in China. Simply put, the Party Leaders in Beijing have Google over a barrel - I suppose that means selling out. If they cared only about profïts, this article might not have even been written. But this is Google. And their product is a powerful tool and they've already yielded it to some very powerful folks in Beijing. This time it was to prevent the Chinese people from accessing certain information. As this tool of search continues to refine and become powerful, it's tough to say what Google will be asked for. Perhaps Google will be coerced into giving up the identities of their own users in China. It is anything but a farfetched scenario. Is hypocrisy in big business expected? Sure, to some degree. But this is dangerous hypocrisy.


About The Author
Joseph Pratt Media Analyst ICMediaDirect.com. email: joseph@icmediadirect.com

posted by Scott Jones @ 8:37 am

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