How Google’s China Pullout Shows Their Triple Bottom Line

Cartoon police officers JingJing and ChaCha appear periodically when surfing the Web in China to help Internet users remember to maintain harmonious Internet order together and to be conscious of safe and healthy use of the Internet.

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, 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, 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?

Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit and editorial director at 3BL Media. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC to Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

10 responses

  1. Why do you say this is such an exemplary TBL example? This may be a laudable example of business ethics or of leading with mission, but I'm missing the TBL connection.

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    1. Thanks Jen. Thinking of TBL in that way would include Google's decision in China. Semantics aside, I do join you in applauding Google. Now if they could just eliminate that pesky little carbon footprint of theirs :-)

  3. I agree that Google is one of few publicly traded companies which is challenging the claim that a company only exists to serve the quarterly financial expectations of Wall Street.

    There is quite a bit of controversy about Google's recent move and its motivations, but if you remember back to when Google agreed to censor in China, it was met with tremendous criticism, as the first example of an idealistic don't-be-evil company selling out. Now it has backpedaled and is using the weight of everything it has done in China to start a conversation about the basic human right to free speech that needed a push. And now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is elevating the conversation, thanks to Google.

    Too often, Triple Bottom Line business gets confused with philanthropic check writing and solar panel installations (both examples of qualities that exist only in the periphery of a technology company that is comprised by people, offices, and data centers, not manufacturing operations). Yet, the true impact or potential of business exists in the core of its operations, and I believe that Google, in this case, is leveraging its expert team of progressive lawyers to bet on China's right to free speech. For those who want to be on the cutting edge of triple bottom line thinking, watch Google.

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