Google vs. China – Good vs. Evil?

Google’s recent drama in China has endeared itself to some human rights activists, democracy advocates, even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Many have applauded Google for taking a “principled stance” against the evil empire of China.  I find such rhetoric comical.

Google first announced its so-called “new approach to China” after its servers were apparently attacked.  Rumors began flying that Google may be leaving China altogether. Pundits, politicians, and Secretary of State Hillary began making proclamations or prognostications on who is wrong and who is right – and who will win and who will lose in the long run. Of course, any sane person knows that no company – not even Google – is going to unilaterally pull out of China. Why has everything about China – including now even just doing business in China – become so politicized?

I was frankly bewildered at first by Google’s announcement.  Why did a series of cyber attacks originating in China (Google never revealed much information about the nature of the attacks) trigger Google to “rethink” its approach toward China’s censorship policy?  What does censorship have to do with cyber security?  How does Google’s threat to leave China make Google’s network safer?  More importantly, if Google is to be a force for “good” around the world, how does Google’s threat to leave China bring good to 1/5 of the world’s population – the Chinese people?

What confuses me even more about Google’s move this particular time is how Google has always complied with the law of the various countries it operates.  Google has complied in censoring sensitive topics (see also this) in accordance with the norms, politics, and cultures of the local environment all around the world. If censoring in India for “religious radicalism,” in France for “intellectual rights violations”, or in the U.S. to comply with whatever laws are passed is ok, why is filtering in China for “social stability” so bad?

I understand why some politicians like Hillary may want to jump in to stir up fray. With China’s economy growing, and the major economies of the West still faltering, I expect only increasing cries in the coming year that the Chinese government, Chinese companies, maybe even some Chinese people, are just ruthless, double-crossing, or otherwise not playing fair.

But why has Google – which has cultivated an image of neutrality – decided to play politics this time? Google is a rare gem among American companies. It has recently announced broad growths across all businesses in all geographic regions.  In China specifically, it is doing reasonable well.  While it is a distant third in the search market space, Google has increased its market share at the expense of leader Baidu as of late.

What I think happened is simple.  I don’t believe Google is getting into politics.  More likely, it is just being opportunistic in trying to gain some publicity and perhaps goodwill in the Western public.  You thought Bill Gates was a tough businessman?  Well, Google may one up Microsoft when it comes to vigorously creating and defending its image as a force of good.  While I like Google (I rely on Google for so many of my daily activities), I am always uneasy whenever a powerful organization (any organization) – be it a government, a company, a non-profit, or a church – begins painting the world in terms of black and white, and preaching that it represent the forces of good in taking on the forces of evils throughout the universe.

For all the people who have jumped onto the bandwagon of Google – or the U.S. government – I offer you a chance for a rethink.  If you are truly concerned about government censorship, you should be equally uncomfortable with the way Google has monopolized the way we access information.   If you are uncomfortable with the Chinese government being too powerful and opaque – you should be equally concerned about how Google guards its “secret sauce” to how it arranges and filters search results we all depend – and about the impact Google’s presentation of information has on the way we think, feel, and see the world.  If you are uncomfortable with how the Chinese government may gain access to information about private individuals, you should be truly concerned about the reach Google has with regard to your private information, including how Google mines your private information for the profit of itself and its affiliates.

I am ok if people distrust the Chinese government.  But if you must distrust, you should distrust in a critical, not just emotional, manner.  Legal scholars working in the area of “network neutrality” understands that companies like Google poses a real threat.   About Google Search, one observer recently noted:

Google is performing a precarious balancing act between the enduring public perception of it as comprehensive and impartial and the reality that it is no longer either. In the court of public opinion, Google continues to nurture the appearance of absolute automated objectivity, while, in the court of law, it now vehemently asserts and defends its right to manually and subjectively promote, penalise, or omit whatever it chooses.

Even if Google is “good” now – what is to prevent Google – a for profit, publicly traded company required by law to be beholden to its shareholders – from becoming “bad”?  What is to prevent Google from censoring results in a way that is non-neutral but that it privately deems “good”?  What is to prevent Google from misusing private information that it has regarding individuals like you and me for private profit?

Have we entered a new era where it’s not only the U.S. government, but also behemoth corporations like Google, that are supposed to carry the burden of enlightening the world regarding how the world should conduct themselves? Should the world rely on for-profit corporations to preach what is “good” and what is “evil”?

Can the world accommodate multiple standards of “freedom of speech” or is there really just one?

“Allen is a blogger at Hidden Harmonies China blog, articulating Chinese perspectives for the World.”

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