Apparently, Google’s Sergey Brin now believes that the US government should make fighting Chinese censorship a high priority, is disappointed with Microsoft for continuing to censor and is surprised that some question Google’s sudden U-turn in China. I’d say Google needs to get a little time under its belt being outside of China and setting a true example for others to follow, if it really wants to be taken seriously and demonstrate leadership.
Brin’s comments came in an interview with the Guardian. On the US government, as well as businesses in general, he said:
Human rights issues deserve equal time to the trade issues that are high priority now … I hope this gets taken seriously.
As for Microsoft, which has a tiny search presence in China, Brin’s “disappointed” that Microsoft oddly suggested that if you operate in a country, you should obey its laws. Oddly given that’s exactly what Google itself was doing for the past four years. He also said:
As I understand, they have effectively no market share – so they essentially spoke against freedom of speech and human rights simply in order to contradict Google.
I’m no fan of Chinese censorship. I was greatly disappointed when Google caved into it. I’m glad they’re no longer doing it. But having done so, Google’s hardly the poster child to tell anyone else what to do. Not right now. Not yet. Not just because Google suddenly found it was no longer in its business interests to stay in China.
Let’s have a much needed reality check. Flashback to January 2006. That was a remarkable month for Google. On January 19, it was hailed in many quarters for pushing back against a US Department Of Justice request for search data. Less than a week later — on January 26 — Google caved in to a different government — China — agreeing to censor its search engine.
Why did it do that? Google wanted to win in China. To win, it wanted to be physically based in the country. To have local ad reps. To have infrastructure there. To recruit locally. None of this was possible without complying with the censorship demands.
Google surrounded this business move with all types of statements that censorship was really something it was doing to help a large population find good, non-politically sensitive information that wasn’t subject to censorship. From its blog post at the time:
Filtering our search results clearly compromises our mission. Failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world’s population, however, does so far more severely.
I don’t doubt Google also had this laudable motivation. But bottom line, it was still a business move, to me. If Google just wanted to help people in China get good information, it could have spent the past four years helping to construct ways for people in China to bypass their government’s firewall. Or the past four years arguing that the US government and US-based businesses should follow its lead in staying out of China.
Instead, Google caved, arguing that being there — and being there for the long haul — would help change things. Again, from its blog post, with some key parts bolded:
We are convinced that the Internet, and its continued development through the efforts of companies like Google, will effectively contribute to openness and prosperity in the world. Our continued engagement with China is the best (perhaps only) way for Google to help bring the tremendous benefits of universal information access to all our users there.
We’re in this for the long haul. In the years to come, we’ll be making significant and growing investments in China. Our launch of google.cn, though filtered, is a necessary first step toward achieving a productive presence in a rapidly changing country that will be one of the world’s most important and dynamic for decades to come.
Four years is the long haul? Getting out is being engaged? What happened?
What didn’t happen was that the core issue in all this, Chinese censorship, suddenly changed. When Google said it would stop censoring in January of this year, there was no mention of increased censorship. Only belatedly, such as when Sergey Brin spoke at TED last month or in The Atlantic’s interview today with Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond — has Google suggested that increased censorship was a factor. One of several factors — and something that clearly wasn’t the breaking point.
Instead, what happened was that Google faced a hack attack on its core infrastructure. That, along with attacks on Gmail accounts of human rights activists, seem to have been enough for the company. An attack on ideas — that’s what the Chinese censorship was — that was tolerable. But an attack on Google’s own property? We’re outta here.
Sort of, that is. Google’s trying to play a game of staying in China via Hong Kong and hoping the Chinese government will go along. Google wants to have all those benefits it gained by agreeing to censorship — but also not have to censor. At least on its own site. It’s still censoring results for its partners.
Whether Google gets what it wants remains to be seen. Poking at the Chinese government might cause Google’s business operations on the ground to be shut down. And that brings things back to the hypocrisy of poking at Microsoft.
Microsoft, with practically no search share in China, has also consequently censored far, far less information that Google has over the years. Complaining about Microsoft’s search censorship is like a giant polluting country screaming that some small country is causing the world’s problems. Yeah, it’s not.
Meanwhile, Microsoft — to my understanding — has on-the-ground and other non-virtual operations in China that it can’t easily change by just doing a Google and getting out to Hong Kong. Heck, even Google’s not finding that route to be easy.
Well too bad! Microsoft is evil for being there, too — they should get out! Maybe. But if so, Google’s not the company to say that. Google’s not the company setting the example.
After all, Google argued strongly in 2006 that it felt all the compromises it made were for the greater good. Just because it has suddenly decided that’s the wrong path for it doesn’t mean it’s the wrong path for other companies.
Consider Brin’s statement at the end of the Guardian story:
Asked whether he felt that Google had been wrong to go into China in the first place, he said: “I think it’s really hard to say. I do think we helped some. “Obviously it’s impossible to replace history, and we made a pretty reasonable set of decisions at the time.”
He added: “I hope the political system in China evolves so that we can have more direct involvement again … I hope this leads to a path where the doors start to open more.”
Indeed, Brin suggested that the more companies like Google were only accessible outside the firewall, the more pressure would grow on China.
Google clearly felt it was right to go in when it did. That’s exactly what it told the world. And clearly, it was wrong. Otherwise, it would still be there and the situation would be improving, not declining.
So Google was wrong the first time. Why are they right now? Why should anyone believe that getting out is suddenly the move businesses should make or that now stronger US action on Chinese censorship is needed. What credibility does Google have to dictate anything?
Rather than pointing fingers at other companies and deciding the US government needs to intervene, maybe Google needs to just quietly get the hell out of China. Like really out. No playing around hoping a Hong Kong site will still let it keep its other business interests going in the country. If China’s so bad, set a real example. Get out entirely.
For the record, I think Google’s probably right. I do think more companies should stand up against human rights abuses and unreasonable censorship demands in China and elsewhere.
For related news and discussion, see here on Techmeme.
Postscript: Also see my follow-up piece, Google China: Congressional Praise; Microsoft Supports Tyranny & Google Eats Shit Cartoon, which looks more at some of the issues above since this was written.