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Grading Google's China compromise

As my colleague Cecilia Kang posted earlier this morning, Google's google.cn Web site can stay up in the People's Republic of China.

That country's communist government renewed Google's license to operate the site after Google stopped redirecting all visitors to its domestic google.cn site to its Hong Kong-based google.hk. Now, as Google explained in a blog post last month, google.cn provides only limited services, such as music and text translation, and those users who want to search the Web can click on google.cn's prominent google.hk link--or just about anywhere else on that page.

google_cn_july_2010.png

Hong Kong, as part of an agreement negotiated before Britain handed over its former colony to China in 1997, operates under a different legal system that affords more freedom of speech.

Now that Google has announced the end of this stalemate--in a Twitter update pointing to the updated copy of that June blog post--it's time to evaluate its conduct.

One way is relative: How do Google's actions compare with those of other U.S.-based search engines? Yahoo's Chinese site, owned and operated by a local Internet firm, Alibaba, and the Chinese version of Microsoft's Bing site each censor search results as required by the government. Neither has opted to limit their in-country operations to avoid having to submit to those rules.

Another way is absolute: The PRC's government does not respect the fundamental human right to freedom of speech (among others), Google could have registered its dissent most powerfully by walking away entirely, but did not, therefore Google wimped out.

I don't buy the second interpretation. Google remains a for-profit company, and by pruning its domestic site to a stub of its former self--remember, too, that China can still block google.hk from its citizens--the company risks ceding a large chunk of the market to U.S. competitors and Baidu, the Beijing-based firm that dominates search in China. (How long until somebody decries Google's management for being bad capitalists?)

You may disagree, and if so I'd like to know why. Please share your reasoning in the comments.

(Meanwhile, you might want to take a few minutes to read about a different Internet-filtering case--the government of Australia just backed down on a plan to require Web firms to block access to allegedly harmful sites on a government-run blacklist. Google and Yahoo, as well as local Internet companies, lobbied against that scheme and forced a one-year delay in its implementation.)

By Rob Pegoraro  |  July 9, 2010; 10:56 AM ET
Categories:  Policy and politics , Search  
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Comments

Google is no different than Microsoft in its heyday. Do No Evil? Ha. More like the Big Evil 2.0

Posted by: swang30 | July 9, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

It's clear and a characteristic of humanity: profits rule above EVERYTHING.

Well, profits and power. The two go hand in hand. Once you have the first, the thirst for more becomes the motor that control your morals. Power is the tool that you buy to maintain your addiction to money and the freedom it gives you and the freedom it gives you to oppress others who you think threatens your addiction. You buy politicians and from them you get the power. THere is no other source.

Any other evaluation of the problem is just skirting around humanity and her vices.

It's an endless chain of greed and power used to sustain said greed.

Posted by: coqui44 | July 9, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Sometimes we Americans have a problem comprehending or recognizing subtlety! This is a subtle compromise.

After several months of being redirected to Google HK, any Chinese user w/ a working brain knows that HK offers uncensored content. Meanwhile Google can offer apolitical, informational content to its most monetarily important PRC constituency, the professional class. And the PRC leadership saves face. And according to Ms. Kang, at this point, there's still a quick link to HK. Compared to their cited counterparts, Google has done much better. KUDOS.

Posted by: featheredge99 | July 9, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

PRC's government does respect the fundamental human right to freedom of speech (among others) but doesn't respect those who abuse those rights.

Posted by: thmak | July 9, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

I think we unfairly simplify the conflict between Google and the Chinese government when we reduce solutions to clear right or wrong judgements; or indict the company as an avaricious, profit hungry corporate monster. Instead we should recall how Google fought its way into the Chinese market when they compromised with the government about how they would deal with censored searches.
At first Google was unwilling to allow any censorship but they brokered a deal that satisfied both sides. Anytime a person searching a censored subject is blocked the user is informed that the website or search attempt is being blocked. This informs the user what the government is up to as opposed to a receiving a deceptive blank search without any information. Thus the users become aware of the control the government exerts over them. Information, any, can be powerful.
Now, as to the recent case, you suggest the strongest message would be to "walk away"; however this accomplishes almost nothing for the Chinese citizen. You might argue it sends a political message but at the cost of the Chinese citizen who we must be concerned about also.
Google's choice to compromise and remain in China could be depicted as a profit motivated, however I also believe that is only a part of what is happening. Google's choice to stay in China shows comprehension of a sensitive political relationship and by keeping relations promotes communication, diplomacy and maturity. We can't always commit ourselves to the Bush-Cheney foreign policy of ignoring the people we dissent with around the globe, especially in business. In fact it seems childish and expresses a lack of understanding for foreign ideas and culture. As we enter into more global relations and benefit, we must also learn that it requires compromise even when we pursuit the proliferation of freedom. We cannot change everything all at once as we're learning in the Middle East. The rest of the globe aren't all young, individualistic and freedom loving cultures, yet we also must stand firm in our ideals....Guess this issue is a bit grey....requires compromise...
I applaud Google.

Posted by: kierkegaard123 | July 9, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

I agree with featheredge99, this is an artful way of allowing the PRC leadership to save face. The question is if this is a Faustian bargain. Corporate participation in the Chinese market can looked at a couple of different ways. By staying in no matter what the compromise, the idea is that eventually a critical mass will be reached that will topple the Communists' socio-political edifice; in other words, to turn the tables on Khruschev, "we will bury you" with capitalism. Another viewpoint, though, was offered by Goldwater in The Conscience of a Conservative in which he talks about what might today be termed the "virtual subsidy" that the West offers to authoritarianism any time it practices Realpolitik with a Communist regime, whether by grain sales in Goldwater's day or browser services in our own times. I agree with Goldwater on many points but I'm not quite sure about this one.

Posted by: RandFan | July 9, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

It appears that Google's "Don't be evil" philosophy is a threat to both US and Chinese style capitalism. Detractors will find a way to portray them as "no different" than any other big evil company, and as often than not, it works, because true or not, it's a credible claim. These detractors attack Google with as much zeal as a left-leaning environmentalist would attack Halliburton. But one must admit that every company has it's unique flavor of evil, and the only attack on Google that really stands up to scrutiny seems to be offense at the very claim that it is possible to maintain ethics in the presence of such wealth. Maybe there is some truth to that, but there is a danger much greater than simply how we regard Google. It goes to the question of whether we, as consumers, CAN differentiate between the companies and products we use on moral and ethical grounds! CAN WE? If so, than we MUST recognize the ethical line Google has drawn.

Posted by: BoringOrange | July 9, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

"But loss of its license to operate an Internet site would have potentially locked Google out of the Chinese market for its other services -- particularly the far more important mobile phone business. "

As I said, it is all about profits. You can try to rationalize it as business practices and good for business. The outcome is the same: compromise in the right of people to access the information they want. Whether they have to jump hoops to get there is of no importance for these people. IT's only their ability to sell more products.

The compromise is between the government and the corporation.

The people had nothing to say in it.

Posted by: coqui44 | July 9, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

"therefore Google wimped out"

No, they didn't.

Some people seem to have such a mob mentality about Google these days its frightening. Instead of torches and pitchforks, now its blogs and pundits. However instead of the tendency to mob unjustly we must take a step back, take a deep breath, and analyze the situation rationally.

Here is the analysis. Google decided to live to fight another day. In warfare, sometimes you must lose a battle in order to win the war.

It doesn't mean they've given up, nor does it mean their policy has changed. It just means that changing the hearts and minds of a billion socialist-communist Chinese, and its accompanying subculture, is a bit more of a daunting task than anyone realized. Tiananmen Square, considered a pivotal moment in the struggle for human rights in modern China, happened over twenty years ago yet has now been relegated to nothing more than a footnote in its history, though certainly considered a memorable and key event here in the West.

I'm surprised at the sheer level of hubris and.. unappreciation.. the public has for a private company to risk its own neck and bottom line to do what it believes is right. Certainly no other private company has had the backbone to even attempt such a feat, and on this scale.

Posted by: JoeCouchPotato | July 9, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

I thought Google was being a wimp when they threatened to leave China in the first place. Come on, one of the biggest most powerful companies on the planet whining about being hacked? Google put many companies other than themselves at risk with this stand because Google is their only real way to market to China. Baidu won't even consider US web sites in their search results. That's why the most educated Chinese (30%) use Google. I am happy to see that it was all a big publicity stunt. I also think China and the world should be free to search for anything on the Internet, not matter what. But, regardless of what I think, as one poster indicated, it is always about power and money. Even the current president of the US wants to have "kill switch" for the US internet... for the protection of it's citizens, of course. Yea, right!

Posted by: jblow50 | July 9, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

As a Chinese, I'm ashamed of our red communist government for blocking citizens' rights to information. I visited China two months ago and I couldn't access youtube, facebook, google piccasa etc. I'm not an political activist nor am interested in politics.

Posted by: HongXie | July 9, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

This whole drama has been nothing more than a publicity stunt by Google. As a public company, the management of Google were probably in no position to back-up their demands. In the long-term, a loss of this huge market would likely lead to sweeping changes within the Google management ranks...corporate culture abhors this kind of vulnerability, and so this move by Google was always doomed.

If the people of the world really want to end the oppression of the PRC, then check on where a good is made when next you decide to buy something. We fuel the PRC's 'oppression machine' everytime we, as consumers, purchase Chinese goods. The dragon is big and powerful, but if you corral him into a valley with no food or water, he will eventually starve. The individual consumer, acting thoughtfully, is far more powerful than than the leadership of Google.

Posted by: truncheon55 | July 9, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

What a shame to Google's employees and shareholders! Google = evil

Posted by: poorbaby | July 9, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Google is, for practical purposes, available to PRC users. Probably someone is keeping track of HK Google users, but there are certainly millions.

If anyone imagines that staying out the PRC market is going to change it they need to work for changes in US drug laws so they can buy whatever they're smoking legally. The 'Communist Party' has engineered its levers of power skillfully. Only massive economic failure could create the kind of discontent necessary for violent overthrow--the only way this power structure will be displaced.

@THMAK = PRC sockpuppet

Posted by: featheredge99 | July 9, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

You have to be a typical American BS artist to believe Google's "Do No Evil" bull zhit. If Google had as much moral and ethnics, it would have stopped its operation in the U.S. because America is still sending its soldiers to commit crimes against humanity in Iraq and Afghanistan. So please stop making the Chinese laugh uncontrollably because it is also considered a human rights violation.

What Google has to do now is to behave like a typical American BS artist and admit that it is indeed just a typical American BS artist.

Posted by: Maersk | July 9, 2010 6:59 PM | Report abuse

Ah, sorry, I think Google wimped out. They got an F.

Posted by: tzuuyi | July 9, 2010 11:02 PM | Report abuse

This is a difficult issue for any company that does have a moral perspective and wants to sell products in China, and in my opinion does not lend itself to simple black and white analysis.
But make no mistake, Google is no Microsoft. For those of you mistakenly comparing Google to Microsoft's outrageous anti competitive behavior, I refer you to this document from the US justice department which catalogs the actions and behavior MS has engaged in. You will simply not find behavior from Google which compares to MS's innovation harming behavior.

http://www.albion.com/microsoft/findings.html

Posted by: dfolk1 | July 10, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

Google's compromise is very calculated. Google gains public sympathy and DOJ advantage by staying in china in its present crippled state. This takes away the focus from its monopoly position that is squeezing out innovation at small startups.

Posted by: beastlet | July 10, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

Responding to beastlet

The last thing the computer industry needs is another predatory monopoly like Microsoft and it behooves us all to to fight against and publicize such actions.

Goggle has powerful and well documented enemies which engage in disinformation campaigns.

Could you please be specific and detailed and give examples of how Google is "squeezing out innovation at small startups".
If you actually have such information.

Posted by: dfolk1 | July 10, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Some intellectuals are calling this a compromise that might allow both sides to claim a partial victory…
What planet are these so called intellectuals from…??? People's Republic of China and it’s estimated population of about 1,324,655,0009. Is ruled by a Totalitarian and Repressive Government...
And Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are still blocked by this Totalitarian, Corrupt and Repressive Government.

Partial Loss..?
• Google, will continue operating “some” Internet services there.
• In mainland China, users can conduct a Google search and see the results, but often they cannot open the links because they are blocked by the Chinese government.
• In mainland China, users can conduct a Google search and see the results, but often they cannot open the links because they are blocked by the Chinese government.
• Google, which makes its money placing ads linked to search results, will face a limited audience for mobile advertising.
• Some phone makers and network operators have removed Google’s mobile search service from their devices and replaced it with rivals.

Google’s claim that Beijing agreed to renew the company’s license to operate a Web site in mainland China and calling this a compromise that might allow both sides to claim a partial victory is an insult to every free and wise person on this planet…

Google is licking it’s wounds and attempting to save face. By displaying on Google.cn a link to the Hong Kong site that users could click to conduct searches. … There is no partial victory… Only an Icon (link) on Coogle.cn web page…!!!!!

Calling this a compromise that might allow both sides to claim a partial victory is an insult to everyone on this planet… Google was “never” leaving China. This Hong Kong exercise was only a publicity stunt …

In fact Google will probably do some more greedy knee bending and waist bowing Corporate maneuvers to appease the People's Republic of China’s Totalitarian, Corrupt and Repressive Government. Like other former U.S. companies like Micro$soft and General Electric to name a few, have already done ...

Posted by: BFJustus | July 10, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Please Note::
This a a correction..!!! To previous post..

Some intellectuals are calling this a compromise that might allow both sides to claim a partial victory…
What planet are these so called intellectuals from…??? People's Republic of China [PRC] and it’s estimated population of about 1,324,655,0009. Is ruled by a Totalitarian and Repressive Government...
And Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are still blocked by this Totalitarian, Corrupt and Repressive Government.

For a private company to risk its own neck and bottom line to do what it believes is right in PRC is not a risk at all.
In the People's Republic of China…
1. Private companies have no voice in decisions; only compliance to PRC policies is required.
2. A bottom line and revenue source is predetermined by the PRC Government.

Partial Loss..?
• Google, will continue operating “some” Internet services there.
• In mainland China, users can conduct a Google search and see the results, but often they cannot open the links because they are blocked by the Chinese government.
• In mainland China, users can conduct a Google search and see the results, but often they cannot open the links because they are blocked by the Chinese government.
• Google, which makes its money placing ads linked to search results, will face a limited audience for mobile advertising.
• Some phone makers and network operators have removed Google’s mobile search service from their devices and replaced it with rivals.
• All of the above = predetermined by the PRC Government …

Partial Victory..?
• By displaying on Google.cn a link to the Hong Kong site that users could click to conduct searches.
• Only an Icon (link) on Coogle.cn web page…!!!!!
• All of the above = compliance to PRC policies

Google’s claim that Beijing agreed to renew the company’s license to operate a Web site in mainland China and calling this a compromise that might allow both sides to claim a partial victory is an insult to every free and wise person on this planet…

Calling this a compromise that might allow both sides to claim a partial victory is an insult to everyone on this planet… Google was “never” leaving China. This Hong Kong exercise was only a major publicity stunt …

In fact Google will probably do some more greedy knee bending and waist bowing Corporate maneuvers to appease the People's Republic of China’s Totalitarian, Corrupt and Repressive Government. Like other former U.S. companies like Micro$soft and General Electric to name a few, have already done ...

Posted by: BFJustus | July 10, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

The change only applies to google.cn which no longer redirects to google.com.hk, if you choose google.com it still redirects to google.com.hk. Since many people in China choose .com in the first place, this is not a complete return to the old.

Posted by: ghormax2 | July 10, 2010 10:02 PM | Report abuse

American companies do business all over the world and must make many concessions when dealing with foreign governments, the only time it reaches the media is when it involves China.

Freedom is dying, the media in the West is a joke and functions primarily as left wing propaganda machine, killing anything or anyone that does not support it's agenda.

China flatly stated , we do not have a first amendment and freedom of speech, that's the way it is.

China is rising America is lost and floundering, with a population of 1.3 billion people, jobs,wages and confidence rising, if you were Google what would you do ? They need each other.

Posted by: jjoyce6018 | July 11, 2010 2:52 AM | Report abuse

The Australian government has not so much backed down on the internet filter as delayed an unpopular policy while an election is about to happen.

On top of Senator Conroy's misguided efforts is talk from the Attorney General's department about requiring all ISPs to maintain a browsing history of all users for years!!

Posted by: memew | July 12, 2010 5:57 AM | Report abuse

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