Google Blogoscoped

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Falun Gong, According to Google

“Does Google ever manipulate its search results?

The order and contents of Google search results are completely automated. No one hand picks a particular result for a given search query, nor does Google ever insert jokes or send messages by changing the order of results.
– A Google help entry from today (screenshot)

“Democracy on the web works.

Google works because it relies on the millions of individuals posting websites to determine which other sites offer content of value. Instead of relying on a group of editors or solely on the frequency with which certain terms appear, Google ranks every web page using a breakthrough technique called PageRank”
– Google Corporate Information: Our Philosophy (from today)

“As you may know, Google is a reflection of the web. Although we aggregate and organize content published on the web, we don’t control the content itself.

It’s our policy not to police content.”
– Another Google help entry (screenshot from today)

“The search results that appear from Google’s indices are indexed by Google’s automated machinery and computers, and Google cannot and does not screen the sites before including them in the indices from which such automated search results are gathered.”
– The Google Terms of Service (see screenshot)

When you enter “something is *” into Google (a phrase search including wildcards at the end), you get a lot of opinions on that thing. I wanted to compare the results for “falun gong is *” in and What you can see below is an extreme example of the distorted reality Google agreed to comply with showing in China; this example is not the norm, but it is also not a singular result.

The top 10 for “falun gong is *” in

  1. “Where Falun Gong is practiced, people’s hearts are becoming more compassionate and morality improved”
  2. “Jiang Zemin and Lou Gan are afraid that there are so many practitioners in your land, and that is why Falun Gong is persecuted
  3. “Some people asked why Falun Gong is persecuted
  4. ”... Falun Gong practitioners who are a group of people only wishing to follow peaceful their spiritual beliefs that don’t pose a threat to anyone (as is evident in the over 70 countries around the world that Falun Gong is practiced) ...”
  5. Falun Gong is unreasonably persecuted in China”
  6. “The protesters can be heard chanting ’Falun Gong is good, Falun Gong is good’”
  7. Falun Gong is good Falun Gong is good
  8. “But now they have foreigners standing on Tiananmen Square holding up banners and shouting, ’Falun Gong is good’”
  9. “banners inscribed with slogans such as ’Truth, Compassion, Tolerance,’ and ’Falun Gong is good.’”
  10. “Other practitioners also shared their experiences over the past few years in clarifying to people from all walks of life how Falun Gong is slandered

The top 10 for “falun gong is *” in (at the bottom of the page, Google displays the censorship disclaimer):

  1. Falun Gong Is Cult
  2. Falun Gong Is Cult
  3. Falun Gong is a cult banned by the Chinese Government and Li Hongzhi is a suspected criminal wanted by China’s law enforcement department”
  4. Falun Gong is a cult outlawed by the Chinese government”
  5. Falun Gong is utterly an anti-science, anti-humanity and anti-society vicious cult”
  6. Falun Gong is not Qi Gong or so-called ’spiritual movement’ but entirely a political tool of international anti-China political organizations and forces”
  7. Falun Gong is anti-human, anti-society and anti-science and is a cult.”
  8. Falun Gong is merely a money-making tool for Li Hongzhi”
  9. Falun Gong is Qigong again”
  10. Falun Gong is an anti-humanity, anti-society and anti-science cult, which has done great harm to people’s physical and mental health and undermined the normal public order”

Overall, Google China yields 12,400 results for “falun gong.” It automatically locks the “Chinese websites only” selection, and there’s no way to escape it by clicking the “all websites” selection. There are 2,667,600 pages less for this search in a direct comparison with – however, page count often differs between countries for reasons other than censorship, so we can’t know how much is censored. Now, is not only hiding pages when auto-forcing the “Chinese websites” selection. In a search for “human rights”, the “all websites” selections remains intact, and the search result for “human rights” still displays that some results are missing in compliance with local laws.

Again, the missing pages are likely to not be accessible at all from China in a responsibility outside of Google. Google is just following orders from the Chinese gov’t, as they say, in order to allow for a better user experience. They say was often slow, or more expensive, from within China; down 10% of the time; pages users clicked from results were often blocked anyway. And again, Yahoo and others are doing something similar; hides what seem to be millions of pages for a search for “human rights” in China (according to the page count compared to a search, which again may or may not be accurate), and doesn’t tell of the censorship on their page – but does display a “shop for ’human rights’” ad for the Chinese equivalent of eBay.

Yes, we know all that. What’s new here is that Google, a company that only days ago in their help proclaimed to not censor pages and still proclaims to be a “reflection of the web”, is in it now too. I guess that’s what surprised us.

Google had an interesting informal corporate motto. A few words ending with a dot. No parentheses or semicolons. There was no “unless” following it, no “if” or “but.” It didn’t leave open a way to compromise. By being so incredibly straight (naive, if you will), it didn’t leave a door open for anything that could be thought of as sneaky, hypocritical or deceptive. There was no “the end justifies the means” in the motto. The motto didn’t mention “little sins” on the way to a greater good. Some complained that’s all naive, but Google was proud of it. This naivite was actually a good shield for Google to not ever convince itself that a “little sinning” can be righteous.

The shield broke. “They thought themselves into it,” John Battelle says. In the words of Google:

“Filtering our search results clearly compromises our mission. Failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world’s population, however, does so far more severely.”

What they clearly expressed here is they believe a little evil is indeed allowed if it’s causing more good along the road. People at Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch beg to differ that this is the case here (and don’t forget people in China already had censored search engines to work with), but that’s a different discussion. This is a change in corporate philosophy. To some, this change is a sound business decision, showing Google has finally grown up. To others, especially many end users, this is a sign they’ve been cheated. A little evil is for the greater good? Tough call. But that wasn’t your promise.

How many help pages will Google have to adjust?


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