Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Don't be evil in China

Google VP Elliot Schrage testified before Congress today about their decision to open google.cn and to censor results according to the Chinese government's wishes.
Some governments impose restrictions that make our mission difficult to achieve, and this is what we have encountered in China. In such a situation, we have to add to the balance a third fundamental commitment:

(c) Be responsive to local conditions.

So with that framework in mind, we decided to try a different path, a path rooted in the very pragmatic calculation that we could provide more access to more information to more Chinese citizens more reliably by offering a new service – Google.cn – that, though subject to Chinese self-censorship requirements, would have some significant advantages. Above all, it would be faster and more reliable, and would provide more and better search results for all but a handful of politically sensitive subjects. We also developed several elements that distinguish our service in China, including:
  • Disclosure to users -- We will give notification to Chinese users whenever search results have been removed.
  • Protection of user privacy -- We will not maintain on Chinese soil any services, like email, that involve personal or confidential data. This means that we will not, for example, host Gmail or Blogger, our email and blogging tools, in China.
  • Continued availability of Google.com -- We will not terminate the availability of our unfiltered Chinese-language Google.com service.
Many, if not most, of you here know that one of Google's corporate mantras is "Don't be evil." Some of our critics – and even a few of our friends – think that phrase arrogant, or naïve or both. It's not. It's an admonition that reminds us to consider the moral and ethical implications of every single business decision we make.
(emphasis in original)
I'm glad this is not a decision I'm making. China has been an extraordinarily repressive and cruel government, and any interaction with the official government could reasonably be seen as collaboration with evil — very effective collaboration with evil. I wouldn't be surprised if some employees have quit over this issues. However, my suspicion is that Google is fully aware of what the Chinese government would like to accomplish, yet they know what kind of an untrammelled firehose they are dealing with in the internet. Accordingly, I suspect that Google believes that Chinese leaders will ultimately never achieve their goals.

When the Soviet Union was in power, I marveled at the stories of repression. Typewriters were registered, and typing samples were always carefully taken. Xerox machines were registered and padlocked. Yet, it was out of this desert that samizdat publications like The Gulag Archipelago were born, writing that was genuinely revolutionary at the time. On the internet, at least up to the subpoena time, you can have true anonymity — no one knows that I am a dog, for instance. (Shhh).

I hope the internet enables the equivalent flowering of free expression to happen in China, and they can take their real great leap forward.

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