Posts about china

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.

Popping the Gubble

Glenn Reynolds wonders whether Google has peaked. Hard to say. It has the clear advantage of weight. But that’s not the point, really. It’s that not that it is big, it can disappoint many by its actions — in China, regarding news sources, and so on. Can a giant still be loved?

: And the related discussion about Yahoo in China continues. See more on Fred Wilson’s blog. And Michael Parekh objects to the tone of that discussion in the comments here. He says:

It’s when commenters like “Christian” on Jeff Jarvis’s post get personal as in this comment on Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel shows:

“Bottom line is Terry Semel is a plain fool.”

Utterly irresponsible and uncalled for comment, in my opinion.

If you’re going to have a debate, do so on the merits or de-merits of the issue. The moment the discourse slips into personal insults, the referee should call the player off the field.

For the record, I think it’s meaningless to rant about select internet companies’ behavior in places like China without thinking about the global context of these issues.

To complain about what Yahoo! and Google are doing there misses the larger point of what ALL multi-nationals from ALL countries doing business in China are doing to compete and succeed for their shareholders.

To pick one or two companies out for complaint seems grossly unfair and besides the point.

In my humble view companies like Yahoo! and Google have done noting wrong, and in fact are doing ALL the people of China a world of good by making better information and communications tools available.

They should be applauded.

I replied:

With all due respect, I think it is just as unproductive to dismiss the discussion as “meaningless” it is to dismiss Semel as a “plain fool.”

The important question here is about limits. Are there limits to what a company should do following the laws of the dictatorship in China? That is what we are trying to figure out. That is an important discussion to have.

So it’s legitimate, I think, to try to find that out via other examples. Would you say it’s OK for a company to have done business in apartheid South Africa, for example? Is it OK for a company to hand over users for exercising what all civilized nations recogize as the human right of free speech if that speech violates the propagandistic stranglehold of a dictatorship?

Just because other companies do it, that doesn’t make it OK, I’m sure you’d agree.

Let us, indeed, have this discussion on the merits.

The China problem

Fred Wilson and I see things differently regarding Terry Semel’s responses to questions on China. Fred says:

…Semel stated Yahoo!’s position that it was better to engage with China and push them at every opportunity to become more open than to leave the country entirely. It was a good position, in my opinion, and he made it well.

But then someone from the audience got up and asked a question. The question was what would Yahoo!’s position be if it was the Nazi Germany and Hitler instead of China. Semel said something to the effect that “I wasn’t even alive then, I don’t honestly know what we would do”.

Wrong answer. As Joe at Techdirt explains, when Hitler the Nazis come up, the best thing to do is end the discussion. Semel was clearly annoyed with the question but he should have refused the answer it instead of saying anything. Because that was a “why do you beat your wife” kind of question and there is no good answer to it.

This brings me to a larger point. Running a technology company in the Internet age requires a lot more political skills than it used to. The Internet is way more than a technology and companies that participate in its commercial development are in the political space as much as the tech space.

So Terry and his colleagues had better get used to questions like this and get some help in answering them (or not answering them).

I said in Fred’s comments:

No, Fred, he damned well should have answered it. This was not an effort to play the Hitler card. This was an effort to find some context in which Semel would finally address the ethical issues he has been ducking in regards to Yahoo’s behavior in China.

What are his limits? That was the question they were trying to get to. And clearly he still does not have an answer, though he has been asked essentially this question innumerable times (I heard him flub it less spectacularly only the week before at a New Yorker event and last year at Web 2.0). He keeps repeating the company line (which you report here) and then runs on empty.

So pick another example: Would Yahoo have done business in apartheid South Africa? That’s a legitmate question, I’d say. Don’t like historical hypotheticals? Fine. Would Yahoo do business in Saudi Arabia and allow women to drive the mouse and protect the identity of dissidents? Would it hand over the IP and identity of a blogger in Iran, where bloggers also get arrested for their speech?

Yahoo has choices. They can say: Yes, we’ll do business anywhere, business for business’ sake, which is what I hear Semel saying when he speaks as he does. Or he could refuse to do business in countries under threat from dictators. Or he could at least put up a fight when the dictators dictate.

But this is by no means just a political question. And it is not even just an ethical and moral question — though it is, Lord knows, that. It is very much a business question. For this shows the character and soul of Yahoo. And people will start deserting it if they do not trust it and do not like it and what it stands for (aka, its brand). I find boycotts troubling but I’ll still note that the National Union of Journalists has now called for one against Yahoo because of its policy on protecting free speech. That is a matter of business.

In this country, we’re screaming about net neutrality and trying to find ways to stop or boycott restrictive phone companies. That, unfortunately, looks like such trivial whining compared with the restrictions put on Yahoo users in China. They can find themselves in a Chinese prison for 10 years just for speaking.

We can judge the company that abets that crime accordingly. This is not just an issue of corporate responsibility — animal testing and all that. When we put our communications in the hands of a company, we put trust in that company. If we cannot trust that company, then we should not work with it. That is about business.

Semel does not have good and politic rhetoric because he does not have a good and convincing answer about Yahoo’s policy and moral responsibility to its users and to the principles of free speech and a free internet.

I signed up in support of Amnesty International’s pledge of internet freedom at Irrepressible.info. So perhaps that’s the question the next person should ask Semel; I’d be happy to. Will he agree to this:

“I believe the Internet should be a force for political freedom, not repression. People have the right to seek and receive information and to express their peaceful beliefs online without fear or interference. I call on governments to stop the unwarranted restriction of freedom of expression on the Internet – and on companies to stop helping them do it.”

That’s a fair question, eh? I wouldn’t trivialize the question asked of Semel. I’d see the question behind it, which remains unanswered.

: LATER: In the comments, Christian says:

Bottom line is Terry Semel is a plain fool. Even so, I still have to agree with yahoo’s decision to stick with the China market regardless of the restrictions they are bounded too. A limited internet is better than no internet or even worse a 100% controlled internet.

Good and important point. We can agree or disagree about Yahoo’s stance that some internet in China is better than no internet. That’s a legitimate argument. What’s troubling is that we have not heard a statement of principles here, other than Semel being unhappy. That’s what I think is missing here.

: Check out the comments on Fred’s site as well.

Chinese excuses

Terry Semel keeps digging his hole deeper and deeper… pretty soon, he’ll reach China.

At the haughty D conference, he was questioned about Yahoo and China. This from the WSJ.com blog:

“I continue to be pissed off, outraged, and feel very very bad about it,” Mr. Semel said.

Well, I’m sure that makes the poor sap stuck in a Chinese prison for 10 years because he used Yahoo mail feel much, much better.

“But you have to follow the laws of the country you’re in.”

Enough with that company line. Would you have done business in South Africa under apartheid and run no pictures of black people? Would you have handed in Jews in Nazi Germany? Oh, but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Someone asked that incredibly obvious question and he had an incredible answer.

One attendee asked Mr. Semel if Yahoo would have cooperated with Nazi Germany the same way it has with China. His response: “Yahoo has a basic obligation not to have a point of view on basic content, and to present content … and aggregate things and to allow people to make their own choices. I don’t know how I would have felt then.”

Good God, man! You don’t know how you would have felt? Who gives a damn about your feelings? This is about human rights. It’s about ethics. It’s about morality. It’s not about content. But now that you’ve brought it up, that’s ridiculous, too. Of course, you have a point of view on content: You buy some and not others. Dig, dig, dig. The next spadeful:

He added, “I don’t feel good about what’s happening in China today. I don’t feel good about some of the things that happen in our own country.”

So in one breath, he has managed to equate America with Communist China and Nazi Germany. Oh, I’m sure some flack will say he was taken out of context. The best way to fight that is to take yourself out of the context of trying to justify supporting dictators.

Semel also said:

Mr. Semel went on: “I don’t think any one company is going to change a country, and I dont think any one industry is going to change a country. “…

See Amnesty International’s call on companies as well as countries to support the cause of freedom.

Still, Mr. Semel said progress is being made, noting that the Chinese know more about American culture than ever before, thanks in no small part to the Internet. “To me, it’s about keeping the information flowing. Little by little, we start to bring about change.”

The Neville Chamberlain of the internet.