On January 12th, 2010, Google Senior Vice President David Drummond announced: “We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.” In March of 2010, Google began redirecting users from Google.cn (China) to Google.hk (Hong Kong) in order to provide a Chinese version of the search engine without censored results for words such as “Tiananmen Square”, “Tibet”, “Dalai Lama”, and “Falun Gong”. China has responded by blocking the “redirect”, and so the effective result is that Google has left or been banned China. So, the question remains, in principle and on business terms, was Google justified to stop censoring its results in China and to effectively decide to leave? Were China’s censorship policies really too egregious? More egregious than other countries’ censorship laws? Were instances of Chinese hackers (and potentially the government) breaking into Google email accounts sufficient justification to leave? Would it be better to stay in order to provide the Chinese people with a great (albeit partly censored) search engine? Was it a good business decision on Google’s part? How do the ethics relate to the business calculus? Overall, did Google make the right decision?
“Google’s unprecedented announcement today that it will not accept censorship of its search engine in China is an important step to protect human rights online.”
“Personal hooray, Google. Yahoo, Microsoft, and Facebook should support as well: free speech matters.” – Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, via Twitter and on his Facebook page.
“Google’s departure may have more resonance outside China than within. We don’t know how many of China’s many millions of Internet users will be able to read about this public indictment of China’s use of censorship. But that is preferable to helping maintain the fiction that the Internet in China is the same sort of vehicle for open communication that it is most everywhere else.”
“The issues behind Google’s decision to stop censoring its own search engine in China are perfectly encapsulated in the Chinese government’s response to it. Here are some of the instructions – as translated by the Washington Post – the government handed down to Chinese Web forum managers this week in reaction to Google’s move: 1. It is not permitted to hold discussions or investigations on the Google topic. 2. All Web sites please clean up text, images and sound and videos which attack the party, state, government agencies, Internet policies with the excuse of this event. 3. All Web sites please clean up text, images and sound and videos which support Google, dedicate flowers to Google, ask Google to stay, cheer for Google and others have a different tune from government policy. 4. […] For all of China’s economic dynamism and modern trappings, it remains ruled by a dictatorship terrified of independent political thoughts and the means of communicating them.”
An important consequence of the Google search engine is that it is possible to look up information on an extremely diverse range of topics in a short amount of time. By withdrawing from China, Google reduces the opportunity for individuals to find relevant information. Consequently, individuals have less information to make important decisions regarding economic transactions, and form independent opinions on political, social, or human rights issues.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in January of 2010 that Google had made an “irrational business decision” because “the U.S. is the most extreme when it comes to free speech,” and because Google does business in many other countries with censorship laws (such as France, where Nazi denial is banned, and Australia where certain porn sites are banned).
“What I don’t understand is, what gives Google the right to flout a country’s laws, no matter how “bad” they may seem? China doesn’t want its citizens to read up on Tienanmen Square—and? I really don’t think it’s the place outsiders to tell China how to run itself. You wouldn’t want Big China Corporation to build a factory in the middle of Texas, then demand that the state of Texas bend to its whims, would you?”
“Contrary to the way Google founder Sergey Brin makes it sound, the Chinese Internet has in fact opened up since the Olympics. The government has become less scared of content, and sites such as The Huffington Post and the BBC have been unblocked. True, sites heavy with user-generated content, such as Facebook and Twitter, are now blocked, but home-grown versions have flowered because the government feels they will follow local laws.”
“Google’s censorship has apparently been the lesser of several evils. Google has been blocking Internet searches in a way that makes the blocking visible, and probably annoying. Its censorship “is generally less onerous” than its competitors, says The New York Times, and educated Chinese are its principal customers.”
While it is true that the effect of Google stopping the censorship of its results may cause the site to be banned from China (which is not good for Chinese users in the short-term), the long-term objective is to increase access to information for Chinese users by pressuring the Chinese government to loosen its censorship laws. In so far as such freedom of information is improved by Google’s decision, the decision will benefit Chinese Google users (or just Internet users in general) in the long-run.
“Google’s announcement sent shock waves through the country’s fast-growing Internet industry and prompted an outpouring of concern from Chinese users, some of whom brought flowers to the U.S. firm’s Chinese offices in a show of support. […] Li Qin, a student at China Agricultural University, placed a single red rose on the Google logo outside the company’s office. “I support what Google does in China,” she said. “If they leave, I will be very disappointed. I wanted to express my support for them.” “It’s a tragedy if Google pulls out of China,” said Xu Hao, a junior studying Japanese at Tongji University in Shanghai.”
“China wants to control its people by restricting what they can read. If that’s the way they want it, let them do it on their own.” – Reader comment on CNN.com (March 12, 2010).
“What firms should be doing is playing by global standards that exceed China’s. Building factories that exceed today’s regulations, and ignore the fact that local rules may look past those who fail to meet those rules TODAY, having global labor standards that exceed local “Conventional wisdom” and regulations, and implement global codes of conduct on managers related to bribery. […] That, in fact, while firms need to certainly abide by China’s rules, it is the firms who exceed those rules who will ultimately have the most sustainable business models, even if developing these models require an upfront higher cost and may limit the short term opportunity that would only be accessible to those who are willing to bend over their moral lines.”
While China certainly has the right to eject Google from doing business in China because it is not willing to obey censorship laws, it is also true that Google has the right to make the decision to not obey China’s censorship laws and accept the risk that the Chinese government might kick them out. This is the choice that Google has made, and there is nothing wrong with it making this ethical choice.
Bad, immoral, undemocratic laws should be changed. It’s not enough to justify China’s laws by saying “these are China’s laws, Google must obey them.” China needs to either try to explain why censoring searches for terms such as “Tibet” or “Falun Gong” are justified, or it needs to change these laws.
“You’ve got to decide: Do you want to obey the laws of the countries you are in, or not? If not, you may not end up doing business there.”
“For Chinese people, Google is not god, and even if it puts on a show of politics and values, it is still not god,” said the overseas edition of the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s newspaper.
“Google has violated its written promise it made when entering the Chinese market by stopping filtering its searching service and blaming China in insinuation for alleged hacker attacks.” – an official with the State Council Information Office, a Cabinet office that oversees the internet.
“This is totally wrong. We’re uncompromisingly opposed to the politicisation of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts.” – an official with the State Council Information Office, a Cabinet office that oversees the internet, said in a statement carried by the official Xinhua News Agency.
“In this case–as with Yahoo, Microsoft, and others–agreeing to work with the Chinese government does not mean supporting all of its policies, and doesn’t make Google ‘evil.’ So hats off to Sergey and Larry for making a tough, mature, and pragmatic decision [to go into China in 2006].”
“China wants to participate in the marketplace of goods but keep the marketplace of ideas outside their country. Only when China respects human rights and allows the free flow of ideas … only then will they be treated as a full member of the international community.”
“But the Chinese government should also realize that its repression only isolates its internet users from the rest of the world – and the long-term harm of isolation far outweighs the short-term benefit of forcing companies to leave.
“the rationale for providing a censored search engine has never been morally compelling.” This quote was in reference to the “morale” of offering services to the Chinese people in hope that it would help them and help spur greater informational freedoms in the future.
“If the Internet continues to proliferate and the economy stays strong [with companies like Google in China], moreover, [free speech] will continue to improve.”
“Ballmer was right: Remaining in China helps Microsoft provide Chinese consumers with more product choice and gives him a seat at the table to help push for reform. Google’s standing up so publicly and stridently is counterproductive — hurting those who want to reform China’s approach to the Internet more than it helps them.”
“True reform in China has to develop from within. It cannot be seen as coming from the West. Like the failed economic sanctions against North Korea, Cuba and Burma (also known as Myanmar) that prop up unsavory governments, isolating China over Web censorship reinforces the power of hard-liners.”
“Like the failed economic sanctions against North Korea, Cuba and Burma (also known as Myanmar) that prop up unsavory governments, isolating China over Web censorship reinforces the power of hard-liners. […] Google’s ultimatum — to let it stop censoring searches or it will leave— has cut reform-minded officials’ legs off at the knees, as well as strengthening the power of officials who take a dimmer view of allowing Chinese Internet users access to sites outside China.”