Google Blogoscoped

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Dear Google

Miel van Opstal, who’s always providing Google Blogoscoped with great pointers – and who’s blogging at InsideGoogle – wrote a letter to Google regarding their decision to comply with Chinese censorship laws.

I feel a bit of what Miel feels. Recently, while doing a search in my Gmail account which didn’t yield a result, I caught myself thinking, “Oh, maybe it’s censored.” This was a split-second, irrational thought bubbling up from the depths of my unconsciousness. As soon as it hit the rational parts of my brain, I realized how completely silly it was. Gmail doesn’t censor anything! But I also realized that since about a week, my subconscious 80% trust in Google the tool has been shattered. Miel puts it more radical: “I¬íll doubt every word you publish.” Many of us had an innocent until proven guilty view on Google. And now?

How much stronger would this feeling be if I’d be living in China? I don’t know for sure, I can take a guess. I would certainly use Google.cn. As I would use Yahoo.cn. And Baidu. I would use a whole lot of search engines – yeah, the more the merrier – and for every single one, I know they’re cheating me, I know they’re part of the system. I know I can’t trust them. Like a Chinese newspaper. You have to multiply the reported death tolls by 10 if there’s coverage of something happening in China, a Chinese told me. Maybe now I have to multiply the Google page count by 10. What’s the difference. When Google tells me “no results”, then that can mean a variety of things. Only one of them is that there’s actually no page out there for what I’m seeking. I would use Google.cn, well knowing that it’s evil. A little evil, much evil, I don’t care. It wouldn’t be a surprise to me. You get used to that. A Chinese told me, “Google was already doing evil by censoring Google News in China. But they’re not as bad as Yahoo, who was there first.” They’re evil, but not as bad. You get used to accept it. From within China, not getting used to it means risking your life. Who’s that brave?

Google.cn will at least show some pages for sensitive terms? Great! What are those, Chinese gov’t propaganda? What, not always? Sometimes it’s great information? You think most of the time, actually? How can I know? And shouldn’t I be scared to enter sensitive terms in the first place because you worked with the Chinese government? And doesn’t this fear and mistrust towards you, Google, as part of the system, prevent me from entering sensitive terms at all?

Probably, as soon as Google showed they work with the Chinese government in enforcing censorship, I would be incredibly careful what I enter in Google. Google’s privacy policy states that they don’t reveal private user data unless to comply with a local law. Their move showed that they comply with local laws even if that’s, for the lack of a better word, evil. So far, the only statement of theirs that countered this privacy catch was that they’re not doing evil. That’s gone now. They do a little evil if they think it’s for the greater good.

What if handing me over to the government helps the information needs of a fifth of the world population? Google, what is the value of my little soul landing in jail, which compromises your mission a bit, in comparison with stopping to partner with the Chinese government, thereby compromising your mission far more severely?

You said it yourself Google. Compromising the rights of a few is OK when it helps the information needs of a lot. Yes, you compromised the rights of a few, as you’re complying to censor the online voices of Chinese activits and human rights watchers around the globe. No, not all of them. Some. You made a 2% deal.

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