Google and China: On second thought….

Well, give a point to Google. Sergey Brin at least acknowledges that its actions in China conflict with the company’s — let alone this country’s — principles (my emphasis):

Google Inc. co-founder Sergey Brin acknowledged Tuesday the dominant Internet company has compromised its principles by accommodating Chinese censorship demands. He said Google is wrestling to make the deal work before deciding whether to reverse course.

Meeting with reporters near Capitol Hill, Brin said Google had agreed to the censorship demands only after Chinese authorities blocked its service in that country. Google’s rivals accommodated the same demands – which Brin described as “a set of rules that we weren’t comfortable with” – without international criticism, he said.

“We felt that perhaps we could compromise our principles but provide ultimately more information for the Chinese and be a more effective service and perhaps make more of a difference,” Brin said. …

Google’s China-approved Web service omits politically sensitive information that might be retrieved during Internet searches, such as details about the 1989 suppression of political unrest in Tiananmen Square. Its agreement with China has provoked considerable criticism from human rights groups.

“Perhaps now the principled approach makes more sense,” Brin said.

The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders said Tuesday that Google’s main Web site, http://www.google.com , was no longer accessible in most Chinese provinces due to censorship efforts, and that it was completely inaccessible throughout China on May 31.

Brin said Google is trying to improve its censored search service, Google.cn, before deciding whether to reverse course. He said virtually all the company’s customers in China use the non-censored service.

“It’s perfectly reasonable to do something different, to say, ‘Look, we’re going to stand by the principle against censorship and we won’t actually operate there.’ That’s an alternate path,” Brin said. “It’s not where we chose to go right now, but I can sort of see how people came to different conclusions about doing the right thing.”

Well, that beats saying you’re not sure what you’d do about Hitler. At least someone is talking about principles.

I noted the irony the other day that we’re whining about net neutrality here so we can download movies faster and the Chinese are worried about net neutrality so they can speak without ending up in prison. Why was Brin in Washington? To testify for net neutrality here.

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  • http://ruthcalvo ruth

    How much ideals count in company operations can be a reflection of their customer base. I would guess Google is hearing from the very people it needs to serve, and that has given that little ‘tuck’ to its modus operandi. Thanks for featuring this, Jeff, encouraging signs of corporate ethics are hopeful for a better world.

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society Robert Feinman

    Current corporate models require firms to operate in a way to maximize profits. Of course there is some flexibility about capital expenditures and things like R&D, but better pay for workers or ethics can only be justified if they are seen as a way to improve profits eventually.

    So a better ethical stand (say on China) could be justified by saying that this will improve their relationship with non Chinese customers. But saying that they won’t deal with China because of moral qualms could, potentially, leave Google open to stockholder suits.

    Such is the perverse nature of corporate law, especially in the US. Balancing the claims of customers, workers, stockholders and even society at large in a equitable way is actually actionable.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Robert:
    Ah, but if your customers don’t trust you or like you (or your brand) anymore, then that affects your business.
    See: Dell. Screwing customers is a moral issue just as free speech is a moral issue, just at very different altitudes.
    I will bet that Brin is backing away because he sees business impact.
    Also: He did a deal with the devil and it’s not paying off for him. Most people go to real Google. They made him do fake Google. Then they cut off real Google so they could tell their people that they still had Google when they don’t.
    That, too, is business.
    It’s not about touchy-feely slogans. It’s about having a trusted relationship with the public you serve. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a brand or a business.

  • http://ruthcalvo ruth

    Showing that stockholder interests have not been served is also iffy, in a case like this. Robert is seeing only market expansion as a desirable aim for gains. But Jeff points out, there is an ultimate gain in better market relations. Hopefully, that would be the ‘better’ gain.

  • http://www.stuartwood.co.uk Stuart Wood

    Don’t Do Evil?

    Google have been given a pretty hard time of late with its venture into China. But are they really compromising their mission of Don’t Do Evil?

    I’m not so sure that they are. After all, what is the alternative – completely ignore nearly 20% of the World’s population by saying we’re not playing by your Government’s rules so we won’t engage at all. Life just isn’t like that – well not for people who want to progress and engage with different cultures from around the World and move the human race on. By isolating countries that we simply don’t agree with we get into situations where we start to dehumanise these Governments to the point where we start to think of them as alien, awful factions of people that we then learn nothing about and they in turn learn nothing from us. We don’t progress, and before you know it we are isolated from each other and paranoia and fear sets in and we are at war.

    Haven’t we all at some time compromised, or more accurately adjusted, our behaviour when we have travelled abroad on holiday to accommodate local laws, customs and traditions? I certainly have. The problem for Google is how they possibly deal with these far reaching ethical and cultural tensions between their mission, “Don’t Do Evil”, and the fact that they are being complicit in holding back information which will inevitably give people in China a limited view of the world.

    Well, Google isn’t censoring these people it is the Chinese government and Google are respecting their national laws. Whilst we may not like it that is what goes on in China and whilst it may be at odds with our sense of openness many Chinese people that I know love their country and their Government. They are proud of China’s history and of its vast development over the last 15 years which couldn’t have been achieved without the Chinese Government opening itself up to foreign investment and capitalism.

    Whilst censorship has serious and far-reaching implications, child labour/slavery, an entirely worse evil in my view, has been prevalent in China for years. I have witnessed such atrocious factories myself, and being horrified by them and the conditions in which kids from 11 onwards work in. But what of the clothes that you wear? Can you safely say these were not produced by these forgotten children? Take a look around your house and tell me that you are 100% sure that the TV, computer, microwave or trainers that you own were produced by cheerful workers with healthcare and a fair wage. These products are produced cheaper and cheaper, at our demand, and with that they become more and more available to people with less wealth from around the world – which develops the world we live in. But what of the children that produce them? Their lives are of course consigned to the reality that they are the “human resources” that simply live, work and breathe their slavery every day of every week of every year in the most squalid and brutal of conditions. I don’t however see everyone reaching to throw their PCs and TVs out of the window in disgust at the horrors that they have been complicit in. And, if these kids, whose parents simply couldn’t afford to feed, weren’t doing this work, what would they be doing? Starvation possibly or maybe sold into the sex industry? Not an easy situation to wrestle with is it…

    So, do we engage with China abiding by their laws and customs and congratulate Google’s bravery for embracing a very difficult situation or do we divorce ourselves from it and start boycotting China until they start listening to us and doing things our way? All sounds a bit arrogant to me that we somehow know best. I choose engaging with China every day, of every week, of every year, with the hope, and belief, that we can learn, progress and influence each other. As China becomes more affluent and integrated with other global cultures, and we become more knowledgeable and understanding of them, maybe then we will start to see the Government ease up on its tight reign on censorship of its people and then maybe some of the kids who are making your PCs, Clothes, TVs can begin to take greater ownership of their lives, lift themselves out of poverty, and actually be able to afford a PC to search Google, in its unabridged form. I wonder what they will make of our amazing democracy…

    Google, in my view, should be applauded for engaging with the Chinese Government and having the strength to struggle with some of these incredibly complicated and challenging ethical tensions. Don’t Do Evil is something that we should all aspire to do and we should of course, where possible, avoid being complicit in the misery of others. But let’s be clear that this will not be achieved easily and a healthy mix of campaigning and commercial engagement is the way forward in my view. Anyone, of course, as I do, who has an issue with censorship or Human Rights abuse in China should write to the Chinese government and campaign against it or sign up to Amnesty Internationals http://www.irrepressible.info or visit http://www.amnesty.org

    Let’s remember that the Chinese government are the lawmakers, not Google, and few of us can say we haven’t been in complicit in the misery of others, wittingly or not, sometime or other in the past. This is something that I am constantly working on minimising as I am sure Google are…

  • http://www.mywcblogs.com Daniel

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article ., but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

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