What Google should do

I am astounded and delighted at the news that Google is no longer comfortable censoring search results at the call of the Chinese government and is threatening to pull out of the market. Google said it discovered cyberattacks and surveillance aimed at cracking the mail accounts of Chinese supporters of human rights. Said Google exec David Drummond on the company blog:

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.

I know some will say that Google wasn’t doing that well in China anyway (it controls 31% of the market); they’ll ascribe cynical motives. But I say: Name one other company that finally said “enough!” and put ethic, morals, and company standards over its lust for the Chinese market. Not Yahoo. Not Cisco. Not Nokia. Not Siemens. Not The New York Times Company. Google has.

Here’s what I said in What Would Google Do? about China:

Google has censored search results in China, arguing that it is better to bring a hampered internet there than no internet at all. I don’t agree and believe that Google has more power than it knows to pressure countries around the world to respect openness and free speech. Google, like Yahoo, has handed over information to governments—Google in India, Yahoo in China—that led to users being arrested simply for what they said. As an American and a First Amendment absolutist, I’d call that evil.

Here’s what I said in a talk at Google’s offices in Washington. (Thanks to commenters, the time code for the start of the topic is 23:38.)

Note that even Google’s cofounder, Sergey Brin, has waffled if not agonized over the company’s China policy.

I can well be accused of being a Google fanboy; I wrote the book. But I have been consistent in my criticism of Google’s actions in China. And so now I have not choice but to become even more of a fanboy. I applaud Google for finally standing up to the Chinese dictatorship and for free speech.

Will the Chinese people revolt at losing Google? We can only hope. Will other companies now have to hesitate before doing the dictators’ bidding? We can only hope. Will Google be punished by Wall Street? It probably will. But as I’ve argued, we should hope that Google’s pledge, Don’t be evil, will one day be chiseled over the doors of Wall Street.

Google has thrown the gauntlet down in favor of freedom. What Should Google Do? This is what it should do.

: MORE: Said Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard’s Berkman Center: “In a world in which we are so used to public relations massaging of messages, this stands out as a direct declaration. It’s amazing.”

: Says Reuters: “The world’s dominant search firm may be hoping other search and e-mail leaders, both global and domestic, will rally around it in calling for China to lighten a heavy-handed approach to the Internet that includes frequent censorship and allegations of government-backed hacking.”

: YET MORE: Zeit Online calls Google a quasi-state that is willing to stand up to China where the U.S. and Germany are not. But it also warns that Google’s interests are not what they seem. (In German.)

: A view of the PR strategy:

Google has taken the China corporate communications playbook, wrapped it in oily rags, doused it in gasoline and dropped a lit match on it. In China, foreign companies tend to be deferential to the authorities to the point of obsequiousness, in a way that you would almost certainly never encounter in the United States or Europe. . . . In this situation Google has undertaken a bet-the-farm confrontational communications approach in China. They will not have made this decision lightly. Dressed up in the polite language above is what is essentially an ultimatum: Allow us to present uncensored search results to our Chinese users or we’ll walk.

: Rebecca MacKinnon, who knows whereof she speaks on matters China and internet, says Google is doing the right thing.

: James Fallows, who also knows, says this:

And if a major U.S. company — indeed, Google has been ranked the #1 brand in the world — has concluded that, in effect, it must break diplomatic relations with China because its policies are too repressive and intrusive to make peace with, that is a significant judgment. . . . But its government is on a path at the moment that courts resistance around the world. To me, that is what Google’s decision signifies.

: Siva Vaidhyanathan responds to me here. There’s a chicken v. egg debate about what’s leading this: the attacks or the censorship. I agree that the censorship is a tool in this power struggle; it clearly was not the catalyst or it could have been four years ago. But I think it’s also evident –see Sergey Brin four years ago — that Google, despite its public pronouncements about a crippled internet being better than no internet, struggled internally with its China policy. Slapping China over censorship is now a way to bring make the fight about attacks about China. Pick your sin — attacks, censorship (or the death penalty or repression of dissent or dangerous and fatal products) — somebody — Google — finally had the balls to make China the issue. I’ve sat in WEF meeting where some have shushed me and others for daring to criticize China: it’s a Chinese thing; you wouldn’t understand. Well, bullshit, it’s a human thing; it’s about rights (pick yours).

: See my post above on the rise of the interest-state.

  • http://multiandnotuniverse.blogspot.com neers

    i agree and i applaud!

  • Matt Seigal

    Hi Jeff,

    I teach IT at an international school in Shanghai where we have to struggle with an Internet that is crippled by ridiculous and arbitrary filters. Google docs doesn’t work here for Pete’s sake.

    I’m in a state of dysphoria. On one hand I am excited about Google taking a stand, but anxious that this will result in the bamboo firewall blocking access to my favourite online services including Google search, Gmail, Gcal and Google Reader. I have a VPN and know how to get around the GFW, but I’m worried about my students who are foreigners trying to keep upto date with their families and home countries.

    Let us adapt your famous saying. “What’s good for the Internet is good for Google!” China is bad for the Internet. China is bad for Google. Therefore, I’m not surprised they may bail.

    • http://www.breakingthenewnews.com Adam Levy

      Yes, this sounds like it will be a lot better for Google then it will for the Chinese.

  • http://dogboi.posterous.com dOgBOi

    Google’s censorship in China has always rubbed me the wrong way. (And I understood their position, I just didn’t agree with it.) From an engineering standpoint, Google should have known better than to give the Chinese people a crippled product. It makes no engineering sense to provide an incomplete or inefficient product (and Google’s engineers are definitely all about efficiency and completeness). Still, they made a decision that many people disagreed with. Now they get to make that right. It makes me feel proud to be the owner of a Nexus One, and it makes me feel proud to be using Google services. In fact, I’ll now use more of them (I’m moving from Flickr to Picasa, for example) simply because I feel better about Google than just about any other company in the world.

    This can all change, of course, if Brin, Page, and Schmidt are all gone. But I suspect they are all in for the long haul. Bravo Google, for standing up for what’s right.

  • Renaud

    “Will the Chinese people revolt at losing Google? We can only hope.” Based on my observations here in China, I wouldn’t count on it!
    Google might also be afraid of the general direction the Party is taking, relative to the Internet. The “Green Dam” project was abandoned after an uproar of thousands of local “netizens”. Now the new project is to set up a sort of white list–if you don’t register or are not accepted, you are not visible in China. We’ll see if they pass this one. Then the Internet as the West sees it would be dead here. I am rather pessimistic.

    • Michael Campbell

      Green Dam was abandoned because it basically didn’t work. I don’t think .cn has ever given the least little care about “netizens”, or indeed anything their citizens think.

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  • http://kds.pchome.net KDS_TF

    Our forum has discussed it for the whole day. I’m from China. Most of us can’t live without Google, but we hate Google.CN and we always use Google.COM. However, we think that if GFW blocks the Google.COM, we will try our best to access Google.COM via any method.

    Believe us, we need INTERNET, not the CHINTRANET.

  • Alessandro

    Here is where us consumers come under the spotlight: if Google is brave enough to go all the way, let’s but their stocks, so they will get a reward out of their not being evil. Let’s put our money where OUR mouth is.

  • Robert Levine

    Come on, Jeff: Google’s threat to pull out of China has more to do with hacking attacks than any discomfort it might have with censorship. The Times and Journal articles say so pretty clearly. That’s why I get my news from old media and not blogs like this

    • Robert Levine

      Just for fun, let’s look at the Wall Street Journal’s lead on this story:
      “Google Inc. said it may leave China after an investigation found the company had been hit with major cyber attacks it believes originated from the country — a move that would amount to a high-profile rebuke of China by a major U.S. firm.”

      Now let’s look at Jeff’s:
      “I am astounded and delighted at the news that Google is no longer comfortable censoring search results at the call of the Chinese government and is threatening to pull out of the market.”

      Pretty different, huh? Does anyone here – ANYONE – trust Jeff’s version of events more than the Journal’s? Jeff, do you even believe what you wrote? This isn’t an attack – I’m honestly curious as to whether you trust _Google’s company blog_ over the Wall Street Journal? If so, why? If not, how come you haven’t updated your “iterative journalism” blog to reflect information from a second source?

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

        Oh, for God’s sake, Rob, read the rest of both.

      • Tony Becker

        “Does anyone here – ANYONE – trust Jeff’s version of events more than the Journal’s?”

        You’re goddamn right I trust Jeff’s view more than the Journal’s.

        Where Google is concerned, the WSJ is nothing more than a mouthpiece for Rupert Murdoch’s backward thinking on the news and media industry. Murdoch sees Google as an enemy, and most of his properties spin every story about Google negatively. It absolutely shocked me that the WSJ ran Eric Schmidt’s op-ed on December 1st, 2009.

        Jeff Jarvis, on the other hand: while he tends to heap a little too much praise on Google sometimes, he is also not shy about calling foul on them where appropriate. I feel like I’ve read (and listened to, on This Week in Google) enough of his work to give his writing quite a bit of credence, even if I don’t agree 100% of the time.

      • Eric Gauvin

        Jeff,

        You say google is no longer comfortable censoring search in China. I’m assuming you’re referring to their ethics and the “don’t be evil” crap. Then why wouldn’t google spin it that way? Sounds like you’re saying they have a hidden agenda or that even they themselves don’t understand “what google would do.” Seems like you just pull these ideas out of thin air.

      • http://www.twitter.com/andyday Andy Day

        There’s plenty of credible blogs that take an opposing stance to Jeff. I’m inclined to agree with Techcrunch that Google are spinning this censorship and hacking issue to avoid having to explain why they’re pulling out of China because they can’t grow their market share.

        http://www.techcrunch.com/2010/01/12/google%E2%80%99s-china-stance-more-about-business-than-thwarting-evil/

      • cm

        Neither story really stacks up.

        It is as easy to hack from across the planet as it is from next door. WSJ tech reporters surely understand that better.
        Nor is this a significant moral stance thing. Purely commercial. Censoring is very hard work and expensive and nobody would want to do this voluntarily.

      • Andy Freeman

        > Censoring is very hard work and expensive and nobody would want to do this voluntarily.

        It depends.

        It can be very easy if the Chinese govt is satisfied with a blacklist of sites and keywords that they provide.

    • Mark Lambert

      cm,

      I do believe you win the prize. Google is a corporation with rapidly increasing share price and impossibly wealthy board members.

      This is about money. Add up the facts…

      1) they do not have great marketshare in China
      2) on top of that they are having to *spend* money to maintain a different version of their core product
      3) possibly ad revenue doesnt flow so well from China – would be interesting to investigate the habits of the Chinese consumer and how highly valued “internet eyeballshare” is for advertisers in China
      4) on top of this they are now having to start spending nice big money on security and countermeasures thanks to the insane Chinese govt

      If they pull out, they get a nice media win (like this here), they lose possibly very little, and they may actually “win” the confrontation. They know that this will also….

      DRIVE MORE CHINESE TO HACK THEIR WAY AROUND TO GOOGLE.COM

      Which is where Google wants them anyway…

      Come on Jeff. Apply the cynicism you would apply to Microsoft to Google for one second and can you honestly say you cannot imagine other motives here besides altruism? If it were altruism, they would NEVER have gone NEAR China to begin with and would have encouraged Chinese to revolt and hack their way onto Google.com. Publish documents FRONT AND CENTER for avoiding China’s firewalls and filters… Instead they complied, checked it out… found it was REALLY annoying and expensive and NOT panning out, and course corrected. Like ANY corporation.

  • http://geoffjones.com Geoff

    May we live in interesting times. The section where Jeff talks about Google and China on YouTube is at 23:30 to 28:50 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iv31oimw79k

  • Bryan M.

    So Google is shocked! Shocked, they say, that there is nefarious activity going on in a tightly controlled communist society. Nobody could have predicted.

    This is quite a spin, Jeff. Standing up for what’s right would have been doing the right thing in the first place. Yes, it’s good that they are coming to their senses, but this doesn’t absolve them from acquiescing in the first place.

    And yes, you are a fanboi.

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

      I agree, Bryan, and have always said so. But now name me another company that has stood up in public. Even The New York Times Company does business there (with About.com). Nokia, Siemens. Yahoo. Cisco… which of them has at least (and finally) gone this far?

      • Mark Lambert

        Because there are “two Chinas”. The public face of China, and the real China.

        I believe someone on this blog mentioned it – a Chinese citizen posting from there.

        Chinese netizens that use Google hack their way around the controls and go to Google.com

        I genuinely believe that Google was finding that enough folks do that, that it made no sense to continue pouring money into maintaining an infrastructure that hurts their credibility and isn’t bringing the kind of returns they are used to.

        Nokia, Siemens, and other companies that actually sell a product (rather than provide a geographically independent service) have a hard binary choice – either sell their stuff their or not.

        You have a valid point with the other search engines, but to be honest, most of them don’t have the luxury of walking away from *any* revenue. And regardless… Their “wrongs” can hardly be said to make Google “right” in this. From day 1 Google was big enough that if morality was the issue, they could have simply never gone in. That they went in, and stayed in, tells me that the pullout now is not some catharsis.

        I don’t fault Google (companies make business decisions), and I like the work they have done… I just think that *all* corporations need to be watched closely and need the cold eye of cynicism cast upon them continually. I think Google especially (but certainly Apple as well) get far too much of a pass in this area by the technorati.

  • Lance Rulau

    WWGD? Google would break the established protocol of bowing to the almighty Chinese Economy. They may only control 31% search in China, however, no one can argue Google’s ability to compete.

    Epic-Win for Google!

  • http://www.twitter.com/sdavy Steven Davy

    How much do you think recent hires like Chris Messina have on big decisions like this and the overall company culture?
    http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/how_chris_messina_got_a_job_at_google.php

  • Lance Rulau

    I see the point about government-sponsored intrusion (does anyone truly believe the Chinese Govt is uninvolved). Google surely realizes the implications of a major data breach. They may lose China, but they lose the Internet if consumers believe the cloud is vulnerable.

  • http://googlizationofeverything.com Siva Vaidhyanathan

    Hey, Jeff. I will be talking about this on Brian Lehrer today.

    This is not Google standing up for free speech. It could have done that years ago. It’s about Google standing up against attacks. This is a much more serious issue.

    I think we would all get a better grasp of what is going on to recognize that the censorship aspect of this conflict is a side show.

    Google.cn censorship has never mattered — not because of market share. Anyone who cared could reach Google.com by using proxy servers or VPN. Millions do. Besides, Google had a choice: censor Google.cn or break the law and get out of the largest market in the world.

    Criticisms of Google for its China policies never made sense to me. They only make sense if you think companies should not be trying to make money.

    So backing off of the old model will make no difference either. China will just kick Google out of the country if the showdown fails.

    So Google should be applauded for taking a big risk here. But it’s not egalitarian at all. It’s about exposing China’s nasty cyber attacks, general corporate insecurity (threatening the Cloud move, among many other things), and Google’s lack of patience with China’s habit of blocking YouTube and Blogger.

    Google deserves credit for standing up against China’s anti-Internet and anti-business policies. It has nothing to do with censorship and human rights.

  • http://www.pctechie.net Pctechie

    I like Google and I like what they do for me. I’m happy they made the decision to pull out of China because it shows to me that they are paying attention. I believe that Google is in their ventures for the money, but also they make sure that end users like me are well taken care of. It looks like Mr. Jarvis was also relieved that Google didn’t go Rogue on us.

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  • http://Kempton.ideasRevolution.com Kempton

    Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts re the Google.cn decision.

    I am enjoying your Google DC Talk. Can you add a time code for others to jump to your Google.cn related discussion at, by my counting, Time Code 23:38.

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  • Kt D

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Many argue that the Google’s Chinese market was not particularly huge and that the company is simply reacting to the theft of some of its own information. But, as you mention, what other large company has pulled out of China and a growing market because it believes in freedom of expression? None.
    There’s an interesting video on all of this at Newsy.com. It’s worth watching/commenting on if you have a few minutes:

    http://www.newsy.com/videos/google-and-china-face-off

  • cm

    Most “real” states can’t wag a finger at China because they owe China huge amounts of money or depend on China to buy their products

    It’s kind of hard for America to wag a finger when it owes China a trillion or more dollars. Same too of New Zealand [where I’m from]

    • Andy Freeman

      > Most “real” states can’t wag a finger at China because they owe China huge amounts of money or depend on China to buy their products

      One advantage of being a superpower is that you don’t have to pay your bills. Of course, if you don’t, you risk having folks not loan you money in the future, but Argentina has showed that they probably will.

      The US does not depend on China to buy its products. China depends on the US to buy its products. The loans are a counter-balance to the trade imbalance.

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  • charu

    well, it’s first time some one say ‘king is naked’. hurrh…

    will others follow?

    time will tell.

  • Eric Gauvin

    Also, I guess the main reason Jeff Jarvis is “delighted at the news” is that he is super relieved he won’t need to explain away the censorship problem as he campaigns around the world about how amazingly awesome google is.

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  • Geoff Jenkins

    “Will the Chinese people revolt at losing Google? We can only hope.”

    SUre, that will be what causes the overthrow of the Chinese government. Not basic human rights or oppressive government policies. It’s the loss of Google that will be behind the revolution.

  • Are Y. Kidding

    Yahoo, Siemens, Nokia and any other company in China has a valid business there, with a valid policy. Don’t try to in any way throw a shadow of a doubt about these companies being there only because they can make a business while Google is failing at it.

    If you really think Google’s stand is about human rights then you are delusional. If anything, I’m more worried about Google knowing who the human rights activists are among their customers than about the fact that the Chinese government has such list. After all, while the oppressive regime’s job is to know that, Google has no business knowing that much about me as a user.

    Google is evil. Google sucks!

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  • Qazqer

    I think that you wrote is true. That google action made ​​in china is needs to reform in order to make it be better.

    http://www.lashgames.net