In praise of Google in China

The BBC’s website is blocked but many international apartment buildings get BBC World. My colleague was watching the BBC in her Beijing apartment this morning when a report on Google’s agreement to censor key words and sites via its upcoming service aired. Needless to say, they were only moments into explaining how Google had agreed to meet Chinese content control restrictions when Nanny dropped the hammer on the Beeb, leaving legions of bewildered expats to wonder exactly what it was Google was doing with the Chinese authorities. Censoring of censorship news seems like one of those things that might cause the universe to collapse in on itself.

For the record, Imagethief thinks that Google is doing the right thing, and taking a reasonable approach to the conundrum of operating in China. I have to confess some disagreement with RSF’s take-no-prisoners approach to complicity with the Chinese government censorship regime, despite my respect for them as an organization. I believe that American Internet firms should remain in China, but should take as many reasonable steps as they can to avoid putting themselves in untenable situations, such as turning over e-mail communications belonging to Chinese dissidents or journalists. As I wrote previously [note: this link now dead – WM], I think there are shades of grey in this situation, where the benefit of offering Chinese people more choice can be balanced against compliance with some of the Chinese government’s less onerous restrictions. Filtering keywords is bad, but it is not in same league as becoming an unwitting tool in the imprisoning of dissidents.

As reported yesterday, Google’s approach is to post notifications that some content has been removed when search returns are filtered. It will also refrain from offering its “Blogger” blogging service and Gmail service in China, so as to avoid placing itself in a situation similar to Yahoo’s recently, when it was required by the Chinese authorities to turn over journalist Shi Tao’s e-mails. Those are reasonable steps, and, as someone who has been party to a few boardroom discussions (PR people get to be flies on lots of walls), I am willing to believe that there was substantial debate within Google as to the merits of proceeding down this path before they made a final decision.

That being said, for any company with interests in China there will be no perfect defense. Once Google has an established business in China that they have a stake in protecting, the Chinese government will gain a degree of leverage over them regardless of whether in separately incorporated or where the mail or blog servers live. If the authorities wish to receive information on a Gmail user, they’ll still effectively be able to hold Google’s Chinese business hostage. What would be an interesting –and traumatic– test for Google would be how they would react in such a situation, where they have no obvious legal obligation (as Yahoo apparently did), but a clear interest in protecting their China business. That is a situation carrying substantial PR risk because the widely-used “legal obligation” PR shield, thin as it is, would no longer be available as a defense.

As to why I support US Internet firms being in China, it’s a matter of providing choice for Chinese users, even if that choice isn’t as rich as what users in other countries would get. This is essentially what Google has offered up as an explanation, and I accept it. We need to be clear with ourselves what group we’re trying to serve by pressuring US (and European) Internet firms to withdraw from China. It certainly isn’t average Chinese users. Perhaps I see this issue through too much of a personal filter. (Perhaps all of us bloggers working and living in China do; we seem to have similar opinions on this issue.) I work with seventy Chinese colleagues, almost all of whom use Google to run searches as part of their work and 100% of whom use MSN messenger to chat with friends, colleagues etc. (Don’t ask me why; that’s what they like. I’m an AIM user myself.) I certainly wouldn’t want to be the person wandering around the office explaining that the MSN Messenger servers were no longer accessible to them because Americans felt it was inappropriate for Microsoft to offer it as a service to them as long as it meant following Chinese content restrictions. And I certainly don’t see how restricting them to Chinese Internet services only serves their interests, even though it may salve our national conscience.

But, as I also wrote previously, US Internet firms need to be clear on where they draw the compliance line, without having to wait to be pressured into it or forced into it by a crisis. There does come a point at which the tradeoff is no longer worthwhile. Personally, I think it’s worth making concessions to content filtering to offer wider –if crippled– choice. But is it worth being complicit in the detention of journalists and dissidents? Answering at a personal level again, no. Google’s decision not to offer certain services in China is recognition of this division, even if it is imperfect and a bit risky. Other companies need to be clear where the line is for them, and explain it to their stakeholders at home. Otherwise we won’t have seen the last of this issue.

Finally, some will be tempted to say, “they’re just doing it for the money!” Yes. That’s what listed, joint-stock corporations do, and what they should do, pursuant to sensible regulation. I’m not aware of there being any mystery or hidden agenda about that. From a business point of view it’s totally understandable that companies should want to pursue the China market. The fact that many do is directly responsible for Imagethief having a job right now (just so you are clear on my personal interest in this issue). But, at the same time, companies need to be consider what costs and risks beyond the obvious financial ones they are willing to endure to pursue the market here. And exactly what compromises they are prepared to make.

Disclosure: Imagethief does not represent any company currently affected by Chinese Internet censorship issues. But he is damn happy Google is available in China. He is also awaiting the inevitable flames for taking the position stated above, and is aware that some bloggers he likes and respects feel otherwise.

As always, personally I think censorship is abhorrent. But I lay it at the feet of the Chinese government, not Google, and I’d still rather have Google here than not.

Other (blog) reading (various points of view):
Peking Duck 1: His original post on this issue. Conflicted.
Peking Duck 2: On Google fighting a US government subpoena. A double standard?
Roger Simon (Via the Duck): Boycott Google.
Rebecca MacKinnon: “Don’t be too evil.”
Danwei: Keep cool…still.
Fons: Yi koutou! Er koutou! San koutou!
Life After Jiangxi: Agonizing…

Added Jan 27th:
Asiapundit: Dumb move by smart guys.
Billsdue: Ka-CHING…Not.

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