What happens when, in its mission to make information as universally acceptable as possible, Google has to be kind of evil? Google’s mission and motto, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” and, of course, “don’t be evil,” will not be new to most readers. What’s interesting is when these two missions come at odds, like in the case of China.
Google wrestled hard with whether or not it could afford to refuse China’s demands. If it refused to comply, it would lose key market share and cut off access to more than 103 million internet users. If it complied, it would deviate from the company’s core values. The search giant’s decision to stand up for itself and make the right move is one of the greatest examples of company activism for triple bottom line thinking of our time.
In order to see how, we need to take a step back and view the landscape of the China situation:
To operate in China, the company has to help the government censor content. The Great Firewall surrounds the country, cutting off content from search engines like Google and access to those sites deemed too controversial for the population to view. Everything from key words like ‘human rights’ and ‘Tiananmen Square’ is fair game for removal.
Even more troubling, the law also permits government officials to gain access to the names of Chinese dissidents who blog or email complaints about the government. And the government doesn’t just keep tabs. China has been known to discourage dissidents through the use of force and jail time: journalist Shi Tao was sentenced to ten years in prison for disclosing “state secrets” overseas—his crime was using his personal e-mail account to share information about how the government planned to control media coverage of a pro-democracy demonstration. Further, Reporters Without Borders estimated in 2006 that 81 journalists and cyberdissidents were imprisoned in China.
Google wrestled hard with this decision and ultimately decided to provide content in China, despite knowing that it would be censored and limited, basically rationalizing that something was better than nothing. Sergey Brin was quoted in Wired in November of 2001 saying ”Political searches are not that big a fraction of the searches coming out of China. You want to look at the total value picture that a search engine like Google brings and think of all that it’s used for.”
Many folks criticized that decision, calling it a rationalization. And I can see why. When a company utilizes a straightforward litmus test for activities like “don’t be evil,” there is not much room for nuance. Participating in a jailing based on censorship pretty much qualifies as evil when you purport to be a company that exists to make information universally accessible and useful. Not that I envy Google’s position. I’m not sure there’s a perfectly elegant solution here. But Google made its choice, leaving the blogosphere to criticize. Until now. Now we can laud.
So what’s changed?
It was a straw and a camel’s back, really. According to Google’s blog the company discovered that a highly sophisticated and targeted attack originating from China successfully broke into Google’s corporate infrastructure. This was no ordinary financial hack- Google has “evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.”
These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. 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.
Bravo, Google! Google was already losing ground to Chinese competitor Baidu, so it seems like a strong market position to pull out entirely–especially given the recent hackings–and tread water until the situation in China becomes more open. Then Google can re-enter with its strengthened reputation as something quite different from the status quo.
However, it clearly represents a short term loss for the company. The share price dropped 9 points on the day of the announcement. Still, that was only about a 2 percent change, so shareholders don’t see the pull-out as a deal breaker.
My litmus test tells me the move will certainly be good for Google in the long run, but I’m curious to hear what readers think. Is this a purely moral move, or are their other short-term benefits I’m not thinking of?