Google’s Sergey Brin Talking China At TED

Sergey Brin At TED

At the TED conference in Southern California, host Chris Anderson held an impromptu Q&A with Google cofounder Sergey Brin on Google’s decision to leave China.

Anderson started out asking Brin to recount what happened. A presentation about the GhostNet spying network had just concluded, and Brin said Google found they’d been targeted in a similar way. As Google looked further, what was “the more troubling thing to me” is that human rights activists had appeared targeted.

From this point onward, I started an audio recording. Below is a transcript I’ve compiled from that, replacing my earlier live blogging. The transcript is pretty accurate, though I haven’t had time to do a second full listen. Any gaps noted by ellipses are very small, only a few words.

Brin:

Upon further investigation we discovered that the same attack had been used against dozens of other companies and we’ve been contacting them at that point on and ever since. And, since we were now looking at this whole question, we started to understand that broadly, even far less sophisticated means had been used things that [were mentioned in the previous presentation], “spear-phishing” and whatnot and had been used against human rights activists in respect to their Gmail accounts.

Anderson:

In the way that this has been described as … suspicion that this is actually authorized by the Chinese government, did you have, apart from an assumption about motivation, did you have any real evidence about who was behind this?

Brin:

I don’t actually think the question of whether this is the Chinese government is that important. I know it seems strange. I think that the Chinese government has tens of millions of people in it. If you look at the army, the associated army and whatnot, that’s larger than most countries by far. So even if there were a Chinese government agent behind it, you know, it might represent a fragment of policy as it were. I think that there are many people there and have different views.

If you look at when we entered China and did Chinese operations  in 2006, I actually feel like things really improved in the subsequent years. I know there was a lot of controversy surrounding that, and we had to self-censor a fair amount, but were were actually able to censor less and less and the competitors there were also able to censor less and less. We from the outside provided notification when laws prevented us from showing information and competitors followed suit. But I feel like our entry made a big difference. But things started going downhill, especially after the Olympics. There’s been a lot more blocking going on since then. Also our other sites, YouTube and whatnot, have been blocked. So the situation really took a turn for the worse.

Anderson:

Have you know stopped censoring results in China or is it just a statement of intent and your involved in negotiations now.

Brin:

Yes, we’ve made a statement of intent. That we intend to stop censoring, and you know, if we can do that, within the confines of Chinese policy, we’d love to continue Google.cn and our operations there. And if we cannot, then we’ll do as much as we can but we don’t want to run a service that’s politically censored. I’m not talking about things like porn and gambling and things like that. Political censorship.

Anderson:

You’ve got a mission to the world … there’s hundreds of millions of people in China on the web. I mean, they’re going to feel all completely abandoned, aren’t they, if you leave.

Brin:

I’m an optimist. I want to find a way to really work within the Chinese system and provide more and better information. I think a lot of people think I’m naive, and that may well be true, but I wouldn’t have started a search engine in 1998 if I wasn’t naive.

Anderson:

So what’s your guess? Do you think there’s a real chance that the negotiations may be successful … and you’ll find a way of staying?

Brin:

I’m not going to put odds on it. I’m always optimistic, and it’s not always, perhaps it won’t succeed immediately tomorrow or whatnot but maybe in a year or two

Anderson:

When the story broke, you got huge credit from a lot of people around the world. You were saying this is [part of?] don’t be evil. This is a familiar [tenor?] out there of young idealists, they start something, they really believe in it, they put their ideals on public display …. and then you become a giant global corporation, all these shareholders and demands of you, you’re inevitably you’re forced to compromise. I mean really, “Don’t Be Evil?” Can you really hold on to that. Does it mean anything now?

Brin:

Perhaps people don’t believe this, but the [couldn't hear] discussion about entering China in 2006 as we did and including the announcement last month, our focus is really been what’s best for the Chinese people. It’s not … about our particular revenue or profit or whatnot. And I think there are many potential answers there. It’s a very difficult question.

Anderson:

You’re a multi-billionaire. But doesn’t, at some point, all the opportunities for you kind of tug away at that young idealism?

Brin:

I hope not. I do think that often companies end up being short-sighted in respect to their decisions and perhaps they’re motivated by their next particular earnings and whatnot. In particular as we’ve gone through this investigation, it turns out a number of companies were aware of certain attacks on their systems and yet, they didn’t come forward, and as a result, other companies couldn’t be better prepared. Now I should give a lot of credit. Some companies had … for example,  Northrop Grumman, that had a significant issue where details of … the F35 fighter were stolen. That’s public and in the Congressional Report and was actually very useful to our investigation. If more companies were to come forward in respect to these security incidents, I think we’d all be safer.

Postscript (Feb. 24, 2010): TED has now posted the video of Brin’s speech.

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Features: General | Google: Business Issues | Top News

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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