Friday, January 27, 2006

Official Google Blog: Google in China post

A post arrived on the Official Google Blog on the decision to provide a local service in China, and therefore censoring results, as reported here. The post is actually very persuasive to Google's point of view. I've quoted it here with some of the waffle cut out:

Our executives have spent a lot of time in recent months talking with many people, ranging from those who applaud the Chinese government for its embrace of a market economy and its lifting of 400 million people out of poverty to those who disagree with many of the Chinese government's policies, but who wish the best for China and its people. We ultimately reached our decision by asking ourselves which course would most effectively further Google's mission to organize the world's information and make it universally useful and accessible. Or, put simply: how can we provide the greatest access to information to the greatest number of people?

We aren't happy about what we had to do this week, and we hope that over time everyone in the world will come to enjoy full access to information. But how is that full access most likely to be achieved? We are convinced that the Internet, and its continued development through the efforts of companies like Google, will effectively contribute to openness and prosperity in the world. Our continued engagement with China is the best (perhaps only) way for Google to help bring the tremendous benefits of universal information access to all our users there.

Our launch of google.cn, though filtered, is a necessary first step toward achieving a productive presence in a rapidly changing country that will be one of the world's most important and dynamic for decades to come. To some people, a hard compromise may not feel as satisfying as a withdrawal on principle, but we believe it's the best way to work toward the results we all desire.

The full post can be read here.

There continue to be demonstrations against the decision, and there have been Tibeten Independence campaigners protesting outside the Googleplex as well as the various rants online, but perhaps surprisingly, it has become clear that there is significant support for Google's decision.

Bill Thompson, a technology commentator for the BBC News website, is also pro-Google.cn.

On the practical side, he makes an interesting comparison to the situation in the UK:

If you use BT's net service and type in the web address of a site believed to contain images of child abuse you'll get a "site not found" error with no indication at all that the site has been censored by the Cleanfeed service - and of course, you have no opportunity to question the censorship or have a site removed from the list because you aren't ever told it is on a list.

At least if I search for "democracy" on google.cn I'll be told that the results have been restricted by local law.


He also believes that politically, Google's decision is ultimately the best for China:

But if we in the West, with our liberal political culture and our attempts to build open societies, do not engage with China then we lose the opportunity to influence them and convince them of the benefits that this brings. If the Chinese government fears instability then we should offer help and advice and support, not closed borders and locked doors.

Different circumstances require different responses, and just because sanctions were the right way to put pressure on apartheid South Africa does not mean that a technology blockade is the way to influence China.

Constructive engagement in a way that respects but also challenges local law seems a far better option, and that, for all its risks, is what Google is attempting to do.

They may make some money out of it, but that's fine, because they may also show the Chinese leadership that openness can bring benefits as well as pose threats.

My personal opinion is fairly neutral. On the one hand, I feel an enormous empathy for the Chinese people, that they are unable to enjoy the same rights to free speech as I do, and that I take for granted. Any policy which supports or strengthens Chinese censorship is therefore distasteful to me to say the least. However, the view that we should refuse to provide Chinese people with any decent access to the internet at all just because they are not allowed to view all of it seems illogical. I suppose that my gut feeling is that Google has made the right decision, but with it they should constantly push the boundaries of what they are allowed to show on their search results, in the hope of sliding down the slippery slope (a very good slippery slope) to freedom of speech on the Web, which is a goal to surely work for.

1 comment:

Aidan said...

definitely agree with your last point there!! Surely it's better to give some service to the Chinese, rather than nothing at all?? Witholding Google from china purely on priciple, would be ridiculous, outmoded, and completely pointless from a practical point of view! Well Played Google!!