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Google's lonely stand

Maggie Shiels | 11:12 UK time, Friday, 26 March 2010

Has Google painted itself into a corner over its decision to stop censoring results in China?

Google signIt would seem its move to uphold internet freedom has not resulted in any sort of world-wide revolt to force China to bend in the way it did over the whole Green Dam issue.

An outcry last year resulted in China delaying a plan requiring all new computers sold in the country to be equipped with this internet-filtering software that was created to stop people viewing "offensive" content like pornographic or violent websites.

It could be argued that China isn't really under any great pressure this time around, except from Google and a cadre of US government officials which are probably a constant thorn in the country's side.

Take a look at the rest of corporate America. The silence there is practically deafening. There has been some lip service paid to the search giant's decision to no longer filter results in China, but hardly what you would call enthusiastic or overwhelming.

Actually Microsoft sounds pretty hacked off because it seemed to be singled out for criticism by Google founder Sergey Brin who told the Guardian "I'm very disappointed for (in) them in particular.

"I would hope that larger companies would not put profit ahead of all else. Generally, companies should pay attention to how and where their products are used."

The world's biggest software company responded with a statement that makes it clear Google should poke its nose elsewhere.

"We appreciate that different companies may make different decisions based on their own experiences and views," a spokesman said. "We have done business in China for more than 20 years and we intend to continue our business there."

I am not sure that Google really expected a rush of CEO's or for corporate America to jump to its side. It didn't happen when Google first went public back in January when it revealed that the Gmail accounts of dozens of human rights activists with links to China had been hacked.

Google said at the time around 20 other companies had also been hit. Security experts put the figure higher at upwards of 40. But none of them put their heads above the parapet then, apart from Microsoft which was outed to some degree because hackers exploited a weakness in Internet Explorer.

There are many good reasons why other companies don't wanted to get sucked in from protecting their own employees in the country to looking after business interests in a potentially huge market that already boasts over 384m internet users.

From a government perspective, Reuters reports that US officials also seem to be taking a back seat on the issue calling it a "business decision" of which Washington had no part.

This is in contrast to back in January when Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made a high profile speech that said that companies such as Google should refuse to support "politically motivated censorship".

The state department is continuing to work its back channels with authorities in Beijing and keeping a dialogue going about internet freedom.

But on that very point, there is one influential blogger here in Silicon Valley who is suggesting turning the whole thing on its head and putting China on notice.

Tom Foremski, formerly of the Financial Times and now editor of the Silicon Valley Watcher wants China to be cut off from the interner. In other words, use censorship to fight censorship and block all traffic to the country.

"I thought it would be interesting to see if we could use the internet to show our support for Google. Google gets a lot of criticism over this issue but you have got to say they are doing the right thing and at some cost to themselves too."

Mr Foremski told me he wants to encourage all webmasters to play their part in freezing China out, which of course is what China does with its Great Firewall which censors what its people can see online.

"I agree it is fighting fire with fire but again if there are complaints about the censorshp and especially if China were to complain, that proves there is value in an uncensored internet."

Mr Foremski says he has had a mixed reaction to his plan and no formal response from Google, or from the Chinese government to which he has
written an open letter
.

Mr Foremski is not without a sense of humour because the day he would like to see this call to arms to take place is 6 July, the birthday of the Dalai Lama.

Comments

  • 1. At 12:26pm on 26 Mar 2010, Mark_MWFC wrote:

    How intereting that Google's crisis of conscience only began when it was apparent their search engine was making no real progress against Baidu.

    Anyone who still falls for all that 'Don't be evil' nonsense needs their head examined.

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  • 2. At 1:02pm on 26 Mar 2010, Dave Parker wrote:

    I don't know why anyone would be disappointed about Microsoft putting profit above all else, that's how it's got where it is today.

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  • 3. At 1:07pm on 26 Mar 2010, RawSharkTess wrote:

    Internet registrar GoDaddy has said it won't be registering any more Chinese domains because of ridiculous demands from the authorities there. Shame there weren't more companies taking a stand.

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  • 4. At 1:29pm on 26 Mar 2010, Count Thalim wrote:

    I've seen various comments on blogs across the internet that Google decided to pull out of China because it wasn't able to catch up to Baidu.

    It seems generally accepted that Google had roughly a 30% share of the search market vs Baidu's 60+%
    In almost any market having a 30% share is staggering. Compare that market share to Yahoo/Bing in the USA. Are they likely to give up?

    Now I don't know precisely how Google perform their investment decisions but it would seem that their Chinese operations were profitable, if only a small share of their overall turnover. Given the various reactions to Googles move I doubt any return would be as profitable now though.

    So we have a company with a profitable 30% share of a market that decides to pull out. The decision won't have been made solely on the basis that they couldn't catch Baidu. If it was then they are using an investment model which is akin to coming second in a race and then throwing the second place cash prize and medal away because it wasn't gold.

    Having said that I do think that PR at Google had almost as big an impact in their decision to pull out (though technically they are redirecting to HK which should see viewing figures rise) than a moral position which is holy than thou.

    CT

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  • 5. At 1:41pm on 26 Mar 2010, Chris wrote:

    Google went up in my estimation for this. Although they agreed to it in the first place which makes me wonder if their latest stance is all just a marketing ploy, albeit largely forced upon them.

    I was not using Google prior to this since I try not to allow companies to become that powerful in the belief that someone wil eventually take charge who will abuse that power for their own ends.

    Now I do use them because I see responsible corporate behaviour as essential in modern society and the only way we can ensure it is to vote with our wallets and for companies whose revenue is from advertising that emans voting with your mouse clicks.

    Too many of us are lazy believing that we can vote once every five years and leave it to someone to run their lives - and some don't even bother to do that.

    We must all realise (and spread the word) that every single purchasing decision we make and many of the web sites we visit are actually a small vote - to put money in the coffers of some company or other.

    Once we realise that we also realise that it is not in our interests to do those things if it puts money in the coffers of companies that behave badly - even if that sometimes means paying a few pence more for something or even doing without (e.g. if you don't like the Kraft takeover, don't buy Cadbury or Kraft products). If you don't like Indian call centres, move to a company that offers UK-based centres etc etc.

    It is not up to government to legislate against everything - we can all vote every day if we just realise the collective power we hold in our everyday decisions.

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  • 6. At 1:42pm on 26 Mar 2010, SheffTim wrote:

    “Hey Eddie, this guy, he's the real thing
    So if you want to come along
    You gotta promise you won't say anything
    'Cause this guy don't dance
    And the word's been passed this is our last chance”

    Ever since Google closed its China site and redirected users to the unfiltered Hong Kong service this has felt like a last stand.
    If they were expecting an "I’m Spartacus" moment from the US IT industry, then it’s notably failed to appear.

    Still, at least the Google leadership have grown a spine and decided to make this stand.
    That at least will bring them some kudos from some quarters, but I can’t see how they can now continue to operate in China.

    “Mama, put my guns in the ground
    I can't shoot them anymore.
    That long black cloud is comin' down
    I feel like I'm knockin' on heaven's door.”

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  • 7. At 2:04pm on 26 Mar 2010, youn wrote:

    according to http://www.businessinsider.com/google-censorship-2010-3
    Google also do censorship in France, Germany,Poland,Australia,Thailand,Turkey,India. Will Google also shut down their operation in France, Germany,Poland,Australia,Thailand,Turkey,India.

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  • 8. At 3:30pm on 26 Mar 2010, Laumars wrote:

    7. At 2:04pm on 26 Mar 2010, youn wrote:
    according to http://www.businessinsider.com/google-censorship-2010-3
    Google also do censorship in France, Germany,Poland,Australia,Thailand,Turkey,India. Will Google also shut down their operation in France, Germany,Poland,Australia,Thailand,Turkey,India.

    My reply:
    the censorship there is very different.
    Google have made no secret of the fact that they will comply with local law. In fact they've been very open that they will protect freedom of speech as much as they can so long as it doesn't breach an laws.

    The Chinese sensors wasn't blocking illegal sites, it was blocking legal sites but ones that the Chinese government didn't approve (usually because it provoked free speech or embarrassed the government)

    IIRC Frances sensors are to block child porn. So there is a real legal and moral argument for the sensor.

    Plus, unlike China, the French (et al) public CAN use an unfiltered google.com site. The search engine sensors only apply to the regional (www.google.fr) site.


    So yes, Google does sensor outside of China - but the sensors are very different, are not absolute and are there for illegal sites rather than embarrassing sites.

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  • 9. At 3:49pm on 26 Mar 2010, Will P wrote:

    Youn's right to point out google's apparent double standards with regard censorship. They're happy to censor material on behalf of other countries sensibilities, and are now doing an about-turn after happily censoring for the Chinese for a few years. One wonders whether there's more to this story behind the scenes than we're being told.

    I for one will continue to use google for search and free email, as I have done for 15 years or so. But one thing - never in that time have I paid them or one of their advertisers a penny. I await the 2nd dotcom crash when its realised that perhaps search engines such as google aren't the cashcow they appear and advertisers start to look to other online advertising models or indeed reduce their online ad spend...

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  • 10. At 3:52pm on 26 Mar 2010, SheffTim wrote:

    France, Germany, Poland, Australia, Thailand, Turkey and India are all democracies that allow opposition parties and democratic elections. I’m not saying that they are all perfect, but they’re not a single party state that imprisons those that simply call for democracy.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/25/china-jails-liu-xiaobo
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charter_08

    China blocks blogs by human rights activists or foreign pro-democracy groups, as well as organisations representing Tibetan or Uighur rights. It also means that social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, as well YouTube, are blocked in China.

    But China still has Yahoo! Yahoo! provided information on several dissident users who were then arrested and sentenced to 10 years in jail.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/4221538.stm
    http://www.theepochtimes.com/news/7-4-25/54513.html

    “It was an April morning when they told us we should go
    As I turn to you, you smiled at me
    How could we say no?
    With all the fun to have, to live the dreams we always had
    Oh, the songs to sing, when we at last return again
    Sending off a glancing kiss, to those who claim they know
    Below the streets that steam and hiss,
    The devil's in his hole.”
    (Led Zep. Achilles Last Stand.)

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  • 11. At 6:37pm on 26 Mar 2010, divakarssathya wrote:

    As somebody who has conscientiously refused to do business the way it “normally” is in so called democratic societies - “Go along to get along” - I will not pay bribes - and who has been almost destroyed for my pains, I can appreciate the doubt and ambivalence with which Google may currently be viewed.

    But when big, influential corporates begin to value innocence and say “no” it portends interesting times.

    Google’s Done Good.

    Google has challenged the smug corporate assumption that business alone will liberate.

    It will not.

    Fellow traveling businesses will allow corrupt, inefficient and doltish coteries, cliques and regimes to bask from the reflected glory of hard won wars for equity, freedom, enlightenment and excellence that have been fought in societies that have produced such new, thoughtful responses.

    Fellow traveling businesses, that squander their freedom and slip into cozy relationships with the authorities betray the ” poorest of the poor and the weakest of the weak” in the case of even democracies these are all those without a vote – children, the environment and the future.

    Such businesses produce cynicism, and conformism, not innovation and wonder.

    Such businesses die slow, inglorious deaths.

    Google’s decisions – first to engage and then draw the lakshmanrekha – the line in the sand – are both that will inspire life conscious people.

    Creative people are quixotic.

    Mahatma Gandhi was when he took on the might of the empire with stubbed pencils and recycled envelopes.

    Erich Fromm characterizes revolutionaries as those imbued with “a passion for independence, a passion for justice, a passion to serve the unfolding of life” . He may have been describing the quintessential Quixote.

    This is not to underestimate to quantum of insanity on this planet.

    It takes the whole village to create fun alternatives to psychotic behaviour.

    In other words, this is not a moment for corporate schadenfreude or voyuerism.

    Remember the lessons from Nazi Germany. They first came for the trade unions. Remember apartheid South Africa.

    Abuse of power often happens in plain sight, since to the busy and self absorbed lay person, the powerful appear glamorous and formidable and their prey appear to be rebellious, despicable and in many ways, to be asking for it.

    Since the past two decades, the Government of India, the Government of my own state, Andhra Pradesh, the Andhra Pradesh High Court , the Chief Information Commissioner and State Information Commissioner have combined to impress on me that what works in India is what I have called the “patronage paradigm” – the paradigm of shoddiness, irresponsibility, cronyism and corruption” – and that ideas of the rule of law and democratic processes are merely spectacles to lull the gullible.

    I have been denied the recognition that were commended to me by one former Chief Minister of my state, one former minister of home affairs, one speaker of the Lok Sabha, several prominent ministers of the central cabinet, eminent intellectuals and freedom fighters.

    I have been unable to earn a decent living.

    The office of the Governor of Andhra Pradesh incited my neighbours to cut off my water supply.

    The information commissions in the state and at the centre denied me my right to information on spurious, brazenly illegal grounds and punished me for daring to object.

    The high court denied me my right to competent counsel and punished me for complaining.

    Even as we speak, Dr Manmohan Singh”s office, “Daredevil” Pratibha Patil’s Rashtrapati Bhavan, Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, State Information Commissioner CD Arha are all locked in a most perverse and ignominious conspiracy of silence to deny me justice.

    Even as the Prime Minister’s Office maintains a guilty silence in my case, it appears to have jumped through hoops to heap honour on a businessman alleged to be a serial swindler.

    India’s editorial class is as dense, amoral and narcissistic.

    Variations of this comment have appeared in almost every major Indian online publication plus in a few abroad.

    However, not a single editor or reporter has had the professionalism to pick it up and make it “impact”.

    My credentials are strong and I have taken much trouble to meet many editors personally, usually on impeccable referrals.

    Our “know-it-all-in -chiefs” have had nothing but smirks to offer.

    When I sought the solidarity of the press, Shekhar Gupta (editor in chief of New Indian Express) advised me, “You cannot go around taking pangas (quarrels) with people, yaar.”

    Even my comments are mutilated.

    Vinod Mehta’s “Outlook” has banned my comments on risible grounds.

    The Hindu crawled.

    It published “spin” by corrupt officials and got hissy with me for pointing out, with evidence, its craven, yellow soul.

    The Indian Press (with a solitary exception) blacked out the fervent open letter written by Padma Vibhushan Kaloji Narayana Rao.

    That dear man , clear as a bell in his nineties, had laid his head on my shoulder, hugged me and wept.

    What about “civil society” in India ?

    Since close to a year now, I have written to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Campaign for Judicial Accountability And Reform, Forum For Judicial Accountability, MKSS (Aruna Roy)and Anna Hazare regarding this cascading delinquency of constitutional bodies in India.

    There has not been one constructive response.

    They all appear to be in helpless denial of the awful truth that an innocent citizen has been hounded and humiliated since two decades, not for any bad behaviour or wrongdoing, but for resisting the dilution of the values of the Indian constitution and standing up for the correct administration of the Right To Information Act 2005.

    Please visit and participate at
    http://sathyagraha.blogspot.com/

    Andhra Pradesh High Court’s Pernicious Rebellion Against The Law .05/29/09

    RTI Act 2005 Abuse In Andhra Pradesh- SIC Cheats! Chief Secretary Lies!05/07/09

    Prejudiced CIC Laps Up PMO Lies 05/05/09

    Compelling Criminality. Divakar S Natarajan and Varun Gandhi Cannot Both Be Wrong ! 01/28/09

    And India’s editorial class will not report the story!

    News and views from Divakar S Natarajan’s, “no excuses”, ultra peaceful, non partisan, individual sathyagraha against corruption and for the idea of the rule of law in India.

    Now in its 18th year.

    Any struggle against a predatory authority is humanity’s struggle to honour the gift of life.

    Obviously, internet freedom is not complete without privacy.
    But I am grateful for even this “free” scrap.

    Till I put some money on this P III, the ruling class of India had believed it had consumed me with their toast.

    I now have had the dignity at least of telling a little bit of my side.

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  • 12. At 7:21pm on 26 Mar 2010, Laumars wrote:

    9. At 3:49pm on 26 Mar 2010, Will P wrote:

    Youn's right to point out google's apparent double standards with regard censorship. They're happy to censor material on behalf of other countries sensibilities, and are now doing an about-turn after happily censoring for the Chinese for a few years. One wonders whether there's more to this story behind the scenes than we're being told.

    My reply:
    There's definitely more to the story, however (and has already been pointed out) you can't compare Chines censorship with that of the other countries.

    So while you're right that there are some double standards at play, Google aren't quite as big hypocrites as they appear on paper.


    You said:
    I for one will continue to use google for search and free email, as I have done for 15 years or so. But one thing - never in that time have I paid them or one of their advertisers a penny. I await the 2nd dotcom crash when its realised that perhaps search engines such as google aren't the cashcow they appear and advertisers start to look to other online advertising models or indeed reduce their online ad spend...

    My reply:
    The reason Google survived the last dot-com collapse is because their business model works.

    The reality is, in a world where we expect everything instantly and for free, targeted advertising IS one of the best ways to generate revenue.

    As for online ad spend dipping - that's already happened.

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  • 13. At 04:20am on 29 Mar 2010, Logic_Reason wrote:

    Whatever will be will be . Google is not losing much since it is just 2% of its profit from China. It is a calculated business gamble with little to lose and everything to gain.

    Anyway, world is still spinning, this issue has little to do with me now

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  • 14. At 08:46am on 29 Mar 2010, Alex wrote:

    It's interesting that a purely commercial decision on the part of Google is seen as the company taking a moral stand against repressive regimes. The sad fact is that Google were more than happy to operate under the censorship regulations of the PRC until the hacking incident. From a purely commercial standpoint, removing itself from China as things currently stand is a low risk strategy, with the potential to gain the company widespread support for it's supposedly highly moral stance ( as is apparent from the majority of comments posted here ). However, no-one should believe for one second that Google would have dumped the operation in China if it had contributed a more meaningful slice of the company's overall profits. I'm afraid in that case cash would have most likely won over principle.
    I am all in favour of corporations taking socially responsible actions and attempting to approach the world in a fashion that improves the lot of humanity. I just fail to see exactly how that applies in this particular instance.

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  • 15. At 09:24am on 05 Apr 2010, David wrote:

    I have lived in China for 2,5 years and I would like to make a few clarifications about the search market in China.

    I keep hearing people referring to the fact that Baidu has a 60% market share and Google only have 30%. While this is true, but people should understand why. A few years ago Google was ahead of Baidu, so in order to attract consumers to their site, Baidu launched a feature that allows consumers to download free mp3's. It is basically an illegal download service.

    This is where the majority of Baidu's traffic comes from and for obvious reasons Google can not copy/compete with this feature. Once Baidu got them to their site they have become use to using Baidu.

    Furthermore, it should be noted, that while Google's China operations are profitable, the majority of that profit comes from ads from Chinese companies on Google.com not Google.cn.

    Also, people in the west need to understand that the major problem with the Chinese market, is that neither Google nor Baidu have truly cracked search in Chinese characters in the way they have for the Roman Alphabet.

    While the search is good it is still a long way off what we experience in the west with the roman alphabet.

    I think that it is for a combination of these reasons that Google has diverted traffic to HK. It is keeping it's sales presence and it's R&D centers in China, which to me points to the fact that they are focussing their resources on developing an algorithm that will work on Chinese Characters in the same way as their current one does with Roman Characters. This is easier to do if you don't have to work on your live search engine.

    If this is the case then I think that it is quite a clever move by Google.


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