Google gets pragmatic and enters China

This seems to be a week for interesting controversies to bubble up in the Internet space. Earlier in the week it was all about Yahoo! Search and Google (see my article What do Yahoo, Apple and Ferrari have in common? for more on that tempest in a teapot) and today it’s all about Google again, but this time relating to one of the most basic ethical questions not just in business, but in life itself:
Do you stand on your principles and potentially fail, or do you compromise and profit?
The specific issue du jour is whether Google should have launched its Google China site, which has restrictions and filters on the results shown to comply with Chinese government regulations. Google frames the discussion on its blog here: Google in China, and even Bill Gates gets into the debate at the Davos conclave when he defended China’s Internet restrictions by saying that the Internet “is contributing to Chinese political engagement” as “access to the outside world is preventing more censorship”.
Are they right, or are they wrong?

I really see this as one of the most fundamental issues that anyone has to face, and certainly that any company faces, and I’m reminded of a discussion I had with a manufacturing CEO about a dozen years ago when he shared that his company was expanding into China and I responded with the question “how can you be comfortable doing that knowing China’s record on human rights?”
His response: “That’s not a business issue. It’s a good move for us to expand, so that’s what we’re doing.”
As with so much in life, I think that there’s a continuum of ethical business activity, where one extreme is the idealist who won’t do business with companies that demonstrate different political views or support different religious leaders, or even have the wrong kind of cars in the parking lot, and the other extreme is the “Wall Street Shark” who believes that if there’s a profit to be made, it’s a good deal and, after all, isn’t business all about making a profit anyway?
Unlike most situations, though, I think that there’s a middle ground, a place that I call pragmatic reality where companies do their best to act in an ethical manner that’s consistent with both the values of the company and of the leaders of the firm, but are also willing to compromise to ensure that they remain successful too.
This has played out again and again over the years. Remember shareholders boycotting companies that did business in South Africa? But didn’t it turn out that those very companies and their enlightened human rights policies really helped eliminate apartheid?
More relevant to the Google China issue, what about the more recent issue of eBay and Nazi memorabilia: the German government will not allow memorabilia to be sold within the country and eBay had to change its German site to reflect that law. Did people complain that eBay had buckled under to the influence of a foreign government?
Of course not. Because we all understood that the risk of fascists glorifying the Third Reich remains a legitimate danger in Germany and felt that the German restrictions were logical and acceptable.
To me, the situation in China is quite similar. The nation has specific guidelines for what it does or doesn’t believe is appropriate information for public dissemination, and it requires companies that seek to do business with this, perhaps the single most lucrative market on the planet, to comply with its regulations.
We in the United States have similar regulations, we just codify them as libel and slander laws, as pornography laws, as anti-gambling laws and categorize them with MPAA ratings, warning labels on music and so on. They’re still the same thing, a codification of our own government-imposed regulations on acceptable speech and communications, and companies not complying get into trouble or are kicked out of the marketplace.
Don’t believe me? Try releasing an unrated foreign movie into mainstream theaters, or even distribute a book that’s been printed and published overseas, not here in the United States. Make it interesting, though, make it critical of a public figure and sprinkle in a bit of fabrication too. You don’t think that’d be pulled from the shelves and the distributor sued?
But I don’t want to argue that we have our own laws or not, because I want to be quite clear that I find it abhorrent that the Chinese want to filter the information that its citizens can access through the Internet. I also find it appalling that Chinese bloggers risk being shut down or even jailed for sharing their political or religious views.
To do business in a foreign country, however, you must respect their political, cultural and social rules. That’s not something up for debate, that’s just how business works, and how life works. If you’re going to spend some time in the Middle East, you better be aware of their social mores and laws about dress, gender roles, dissemination of information, etc.
Heck, if you’re going to visit my home, you need to know what we find acceptable and unacceptable behavior too. Use obscenities in front of my children and you’ll be sitting in the driveway wondering what happened, for example. Places – and countries – have behavioral, ethical and moral guidelines and either you fit in or you’re in for a tough journey, or worse.
The question that Google faces with Google China isn’t whether to “buckle under” to the Chinese laws – because not complying was never an option for the firm – but rather the simpler question of “go, no go”. Does the company want to have a presence in China, or not?
If the answer is “no”, then they’d be conceding a massive, critically important future marketplace for not just search, but the entire range of Google products, present and future. If the answer is “yes”, as it was, then the company has to comply with the laws and regulations of the country. There never was a “third choice” of going into the country and ignoring the laws.
And, while I’m thinking about it, there’s a major dose of ethnocentricity we’re dancing around here too, without labeling it. It’s another typically American perspective to believe that our way is the best and that we should impose our views, our values, and our politics on the rest of the world. Those countries that don’t want to adopt our Western Ways are just ignorant or lack enlightenment. You’ve heard this logic, I’m sure, even if it wasn’t quite presented as bluntly.
Ask yourself this question: what makes us think that the American set of acceptable speech and communication laws are so great while those of other countries (German with its anti-Nazi stance, the Middle East with its more restrictive rules on gambling and pornography, etc) are so backwards and wrong?
Big journeys start with a few small steps. Perhaps Google China can be one of those small steps to a better tomorrow in China, but it’s not an overnight revolution, that’s for sure.
For my part, I applaud Google’s decision to put aside the idealistic “do no evil” philosophy and become what all successful companies become: pragmatic.
Now let’s see what evolves…

Additional reading on the subject:
  •   Google: Do No Evil, Unless It’s with Communists
  •   Google Censors Itself for China
  •   Has Google Lost Its Soul?
  •   This Mess Keeps Getting Worse
  •   Eunuch Version of Google
  •   Why Google in China makes sense

10 comments on “Google gets pragmatic and enters China

  1. Psycho Capitalism is the Mammonist worship of money at any cost (excuse the pun).
    Step on any morality just so long as you make filthy lucre, is their policy.
    Business is historically the black sheep of the human family. Only at about the time of Buddha, Jesus, and the Roman road system did the Merchant begin to gain some status.
    But historically, merchants are low life scum you cannot trust to have any honesty or morals.
    I see little evidence of any moral evolution of business, which is why we must struggle to regain some ethical qualities and dignity, in contrast to the many Enrons and Martha Stewarts out there.
    Google I like and support. This China situation is tricky and complex.
    But I will say this: we should punish China economically for their sick, depraved, monstrosity of Mind Control BS government.
    You *never* hurt business by being ethical. You *never* jeopardize your business growth by refusing to compromise with evil and tyranny.
    Profits from porn, sex slavery, drugs, spam, con jobs, and business with repressive scum bag nations, like Retard China and North Korea Cult State, is “dirty blood money”.
    Still, I respect both Microsoft and Google, while having serious concerns about their dealings with that crap country China.

  2. I would be willing to bet that some of the other citizens of the Republic of Boulder would have you thrown out of the city talking like this! Capitalism over human rights? You’re kidding right? Google talks about doing no evil, but then condones the filtering of info for the bottom dollar. How dare they want to make money?
    Dave this article is right on in my opinion. If Google was not the SE of choice in China it would have been Yahoo, Ask Jeeves or Lycos. I too believe in the freedom of information, and human nature being what it is, who knows perhaps the Chinese government will beging to soften under the pressure of its own citizens and begin to allow the filters to let loose a small amount at a time, creating the crack in the dam of information, and sooner than later causing the dam to break. China is surpassing the US in almost every category of growth and prosperity. Soon there will be a revolution in that country when it becomes the next economic power, and who knows, it could be a reality because of a company that wanted the people to have just a small amount of freedom.

  3. If you continue to punish countries that don’t share your own moral baseline, you will have little chance to effectuate change. Sure, the Chinese have a poor human rights track record, but there are many places on this planet where inequities occur on a regular basis – even here in America.
    MyST Technology Partners provides blogsite services in China (so far only to American firms doing business in China). To the best of our knowledge, our customers treat their Chinese workers with respect and pay top wages and benefits. I suspect there’s a positive influence associated such activity. Thus far, we haven’t been asked to alter our services to meet localized requirements (cultural or legal) but if asked, we will comply just as Google has.
    — bf

  4. basically google by following the dictats of the chinese govt is encouraging them to be more harsh just because they now know that american companies are now willing to sell their rights to be free and even their soul to get a foothold in chinese market

  5. America is impure, decadent, materialistic, and money-crazed, as the Communists and Muslims correctly say, though I am no commie or islamist.
    Our enemies often assess us correctly, but have lousy cures.
    We Americans cannot provide moral guidance for any other nation. But individual companies can take a stand against hypocrisy.
    I don’t ask anyone to conform to my total morality belief system. But I do hold all entities up to a code of ethics. It’s not hard to see that Americans do at least condemn liars and con artists and criminals like Martha Stewart, Rush Limbaugh (dope fiend), and Enron.
    I hope along with you all that Google and other tech services will punch a massive hole in the crap country China.
    China sucks and I will not take a single penny from that repressive Mind Control Cult Nation.
    Are you opportunistic? Then you’d probably prostitute your own grandmother, idiots.

  6. while i personally like google for all kinds of reasons, i despise people who look at life from the bottom line. having said that, i can tell you that it’s not a question of whether google would or would not have been beaten out by yahoo, and who cares, but rather what the chinese netizens will do with the search capability they have been given.
    when i use the computer center at the vet center here in los angeles, i find that simple, innocuous searches are often blocked by this silly program called “websense,” which, being written by not-so-bright human programmers, blocks some things and lets other stuff through, much of the time in a seemingly arbitrary way.
    when i get persistant, i find that i can link my way to what i want to visit by indirection. i am sure that smart hackers in china will be able to see what they want or need to see, if they want to badly enough.
    liberal democracy, if that’s what they really want in china, is not free, and chinese netizens will have to work to achieve their aims, just like it works everywhere else in the world and throughout history.
    personally, i believe that google (or any search tool) is a blessing to the chinese, if they get serious and start hacking intelligently.
    i wish them all the best.

  7. Hmm, could this be a new business direction for them?
    Google Counter-Intelligence … beta.
    Google search is finding out exactly what the Chicoms are censoring and then it’s undoubtably routing that information to the proper US agency(ies)for analysis. Further elaboration on where it goes next (right back under their noses) isn’t necessary.
    Pretty cool.

  8. I’ve been pondering this for a few days. You raised some very good points, Dave.
    On the one hand, I agree with you — it’s good for Google to have a presence in China. It’s also good for Chinese citizens to have at least *some* access to Google.
    But down the road, who’s the 800-lb gorilla in this room: Google, or the Chinese government? I’d bet my bananas on the Chinese government.
    That is, Google needs the Chinese market more than the Chinese government (which currently controls most access to that market) needs Google. Google does have competitors, after all.
    I can’t help but wonder if, having made this concession to censorship, later on Google might be willing to make further concessions (probably quietly) in order to maintain its access to the Chinese market. Like maybe:
    – Further restrictions on searchable content
    – Refraining from indexing, say, Chinese blogs that aren’t specifically sanctioned by the Chinese govt.
    – Providing aggregate search data to the Chinese government showing, say, how many people were looking up “tibet + independence”
    – Providing specific IP addresses associated with search queries for censored topics.
    …Yes, I’m extrapolating. But my point is, we’re talking about the exercise of power here. And while the Chinese government virtually controls online access for the massive and attractive Chinese market, it holds the power. Once it gets its providers hooked on serving China as a cornerstone of their businesses, it can pretty much ask for whatever it wants.
    That’s where this will get much, much murkier.
    IMHO, of course 🙂
    – Amy Gahran

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