Here be dragons
Google, the internet search engine that has grown into a corporate giant, began operations in China on January 25th. Though critics suggest it has betrayed its own motto - “don't be evil” - by agreeing to censor certain sites, Google maintains it will do more good than harm
IN 2001 human-rights activists in China crowed that a little-known search engine called Google was the most important tool ever created to skirt state censors. Users could retrieve content that Beijing banned by clicking to call up a “cached” copy of the web page, stored by Google. Soon, however, Google itself was being sporadically blocked. The firm was instructed to deactivate that particular feature, and for a short time its web address was even re-routed by Chinese network operators to the website of a local rival.
The continual cat-and-mouse game ended this week when Google, now a corporate giant, entered the dragon’s den. On January 25th the search engine “Google.cn” began operations. It is a first step towards beefing up the company’s local presence, which will also mean placing computer-servers in the country. This will speed up service for mainland users, who otherwise must penetrate the great firewall of China, which dramatically slows down access to Google.com.
Having local infrastructure gives an advantage to Google’s search-engine rivals, such as China’s Baidu.com (which enjoys around 40% of the Chinese search market, compared with Google’s 30%), and Yahoo! and Microsoft’s MSN, which have local Chinese operations. China’s internet market, with more than 100m users, is one of the fastest-growing and most lucrative in the world. Can Google—with its motto “don’t be evil”—do business in China without betraying its soul?
The company is making a concerted effort to do just that. It has reached an agreement with the Chinese authorities that allows it to disclose to users, at the bottom of a list of search results, whether information has been withheld. This is similar to what the company does in other countries where it faces content restrictions, such as France and Germany (where Nazi sites are banned), and America (where it removes material that is suspected of copyright infringement). Although the disclosure is more prominent on these western sites, putting such a message on its Chinese site is an important step towards transparency and, furthermore, is something its rivals do not do.
Furthermore, Google is tiptoeing into the country with only a handful of services. It is not offering e-mail, blogging or social-networking services, because it worries that it will not be able to ensure users’ privacy. It wishes to avoid the situation in which MSN and Yahoo! find themselves, whereby they are forced to obey the Chinese government’s orders in censoring content and revealing users’ identities. Rather than be placed in a position where it may have to compromise its values, Google instead is narrowing what it offers (although its news service will contain only government-approved media sources).
Google believes that entering China, even with restraints on content, lets it offer more information than if it remained outside. Yet the decision comes as American internet firms such as Yahoo! and MSN duck criticism that they are complicit with the Chinese authorities.
Meanwhile in America
For Google, taking the higher road happens to also be a way to differentiate its service. This month America’s Department of Justice went to court to force Google to comply with a subpoena seeking more than 1m web addresses and a weeks’ worth of all users’ searches (down from an original demand of every web address it holds and two months of searches), albeit without any information that would identify individual users. The government wants the data in order to examine the effectiveness of software filters to block pornography, for a case involving a law prohibiting the content, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional.
The government requested, and received, information from Yahoo!, MSN and AOL—all of which initially stonewalled about whether they disclosed the data. Yet Google resisted, arguing that “acceding to the request would suggest it is willing to reveal information about those who use its services. This is not a perception that Google can accept.” The day the subpoena was made public, Google’s shares dropped almost 9%, its largest single-day decline since it began trading in 2004.
Google’s stance could put commercial pressure on its rivals to adopt more customer-friendly policies, and may serve as a warning to other internet firms to treat customers’ data with more care. Yet such high-mindedness will be tested as Google enters China. Keeping its options open, the company is not shutting down the Chinese-language version of Google.com. It will remain available, for those willing to wait a bit longer for their uncensored search results.