Sunday, October 9, 2005
Sergey Speaks Out On China Issues
Thanks to Gary Price for pointing out this video of Google Co-Founder [RM] Sergey Brin speaking to “SIMS 141: Search Engines: Technology, Society, and Business.” An interesting excerpt from an accompanying news release:
“Many students asked about Google’s role in China, and some questioned whether the company was cooperating with the Chinese government, enabling the censorship of online information.
Brin said Google complied with the laws of the countries in which it operates, including laws in the United States and Germany that the company “does not necessarily support.” He denied that Google was censoring information in China, maintaining that the government and not Google was responsible for blocking information through the use of firewalls. He said Google had been shut down a number of times in China and that ultimately, Google does good in China by making it possible for the Chinese people to have broad access to information.”
Sergey admitted that there were some exceptions to the rule, including Google News China. It is my understanding that Google removed several (around eight) news sources from its Google News China news service in order to comply with a censorship request (what else could you call it) from the Chinese government. It’s true Google doesn’t seem to block content in China on its web search engine (which itself had been censored for a while in China, but then was let back in by the Chinese government). On Google’s web search, you can see the results titles and snippets, but clicking on the link will take you to a special blocked-by-China page. However, they do censor the Chinese news sources they’ve been asked to censor (or those they found out were blocked by the Chinese government).
Now Google is free to include what they want in Google News – after all, even in its US version, all sources are manually selected, so there is definite editorial judgment here. But if they agreed to exclude sources after they decided on inclusion, now that certainly seems strange. Google in their official company blog last year admitted, “For users inside the People’s Republic of China, we have chosen not to include sources that are inaccessible from within that country.”
Google then tried to defend their choice with the argument that including the sources would merely show them in their results... and when you click on them, they are censored anyway by that great Chinese firewall, which would create a “serious user experience problem.”
But wait: by that reasoning, doesn’t that mean they should censor their web search results as well? Because clicking on many, many pages found on Google web search result pages lets Chinese people run into the same “user experience problem.” For starters, a walloping ~29 million pages are blocked on Google’s Blogspot.com domain alone, but they still show up in search results.
This hints at an unfortunate logical problem in Google’s thinking on this matter, or rather, in their decision on how to defend their case. I would assume they actually agreed to the censorship (like they did in web search results in Germany and France, too, to go along with local laws) for other reasons:
- The (absolutely reasonable) fear that if they wouldn’t have complied with removing some of the sources, Google News China would have been completely blocked. Assuming they’re only wanting the best for all Chinese people, they might have decided that letting “a little democracy” into China would improve the overall situation and in the long term, allow them to put away with all censorship. Google said, “It was a difficult tradeoff for us to make, but the one we felt ultimately serves the best interests of our users located in China.”
- Google might simply have thought of expanding into that important, huge market (with nearly a 100 million internet users, according to some sources), willing to pay a price. Certainly now is the time, because China is opening up more and more; in years to come, all gold-bearing creeks might be claimed.
- They might have thought “A little censorship doesn’t really matter,” speaking in pragmatic terms (according to Google, the censored sources make up only 2% of the Google News content in China).
- A mix of above.
However, there are some problems arising now:
- Google News users in China now don’t see what they’re missing. This takes away part of the basis for defending against their government decision.
- Google News users in China, even if they would not have been able to see the actual articles provided by Google News, might have been able to see the headlines (Google admitted it’s possible “that there would be some small user value to just seeing the headlines.”)
- Google is setting another important precedent (not the first, because others have compromised as well during expansion). By playing by their rules, Google strengthens the Chinese government. Google is not our moral consciousness in the world, but they have the power to set good, or bad, examples. Others may follow.
- Think of how you would feel as a news company that was removed from Google News. Google risks losing trust of many.
- The “broken window” theory; if we allow Google to implement censorship, even a little, they might continue to do so on a larger scale (because they get away with it, and because the first and morally hardest step has been taken already). I’m sure Google doesn’t like government laws to censor content – they must hate it, if only because it makes their services less useful – but that doesn’t mean they will not be tempted again when the alternative to censorship is to stop make business in a specific country.
Now I’m not saying Google is evil. There are many shades of gray in this picture. But when we’re using Gmail, Blogger, Orkut, Google web search, or any of the other Google services, we’re implicitly putting a lot of trust into Google... because we’re feeding them our private data. Thus, we expect them to be trustworthy, and not let themselves be used by the government (any government, at that; just think of what has been made possible with the US Patriot Act). What I’m saying is this issue needs more discussion; and a more truthful and open discussion at that. The Google Blog has promised to clear up this issue in a coming post. We’re waiting.
>> More posts
This site unofficially covers Google™ and more with some rights reserved. Join our forum!