Google surrenders to Chinese censorship demands

Google said this week it plans to stop redirecting Chinese searchers to an uncensored portal in Hong Kong. In so doing, the search giant replaces it's famous "Don't be evil" slogan with, "It's okay to be a little bit evil."

Until now, Google has been redirecting Chinese searchers to its uncensored Hong Kong search engine, Google.com/hk. Google explains on its official blog:

However, it’s clear from conversations we have had with Chinese government officials that they find the redirect unacceptable—and that if we continue redirecting users our Internet Content Provider license will not be renewed (it’s up for renewal on June 30). Without an ICP license, we can’t operate a commercial website like Google.cn—so Google would effectively go dark in China.

That’s a prospect dreaded by many of our Chinese users, who have been vocal about their desire to keep Google.cn alive.

Google hopes to placate Chinese censors by replacing the redirect with a landing page on Google.cn that links to the uncensored Google.com.hk. The company has already been doing this with a small percentage of users.

Google presents the case as a matter of balancing between two contradictory goods: "increas[ing] access to information while abiding by Chinese law."

It's a classic moral dilemma, taught in philosophy classes everywhere: If a man steals a loaf of bread to keep his family from starving, is he doing wrong? Stealing is wrong, after all. On the other hand, a man has an obligation to feed his family. Faced with that choice, most people would say the man should steal the bread.

But in Google's case, the choice is a false one. Chinese censorship laws are wrong, as is all censorship. When the law is wrong, good people are obliged to break that law. Martin Luther King and his fellow civil rights activists knew that, as dissidents do around the world.

Google seems to think that access to its services are so wonderful that depriving the people of China of those services is as bad as censorship. "As a company we aspire to make information available to users everywhere, including China. It’s why we have worked so hard to keep Google.cn alive, as well as to continue our research and development work in China," Google said on its blog.

Google is kidding itself. Google is a great search engine, but it isn't unique. China has great computer scientists, they could develop a search engine just as good, or close enough as to make no difference. Google's pulling out of China wouldn't deprive the Chinese people of a great good. And if Google refused to do business in China and delivered uncensored results, they'd be taking a clear moral stand that it's wrong to cooperate with censorship.

More than that, they'd be sending a signal to companies everywhere: That doing the right thing is more important than making money.

But Google isn't taking that route. Google is saying that it's OK to cooperate with censorship -- a little bit. So long as you don't cooperate a lot, it's OK.

This is nonsense.

Or maybe it's not about choosing good over evil. Maybe it's just about the money. China is, after all, a market of a billion people, most of whom have yet to get Internet access. Google stands to reap vast wealth from that market. Maybe that wealth is more important to Google than defending freedom.

It certainly seems that way.

What's even worse for Google is that Google's attempt at compromise is unlikely to work. "If the Chinese government isn’t happy with them running uncensored search results out of the Hong Kong site -- I don’t see why they’ll be any happier just because it becomes one click away," Danny Sullivan, who runs the search-analysis website Search Engine Land, told Reuters.

Update, Wednesday, 6/30: Follow-up with Google response: Google walks a fine line on China censorship.

Mitch Wagner

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is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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