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.: January 2010 --> Google's China decision is pragmatic, not idealistic

Google's China decision is pragmatic, not idealistic

» Two weeks ago, when Google announced that it would no longer censor search results in China, half of the Internet jumped for joy, and the other half sneered with cynicism that Google hadn't been doing that well in China anyway.

In its announcement, Google stated that Chinese attackers have accessed 2 Gmail accounts and stolen intellectual property - Google company secrets. Additionally, Google has found evidence that, independent of this attack, Gmail accounts belonging to advocates for Chinese human rights have been routinely accessed by third parties, probably as a result of poor security practices on the part of those individuals. As a result, Google has announced that they "have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on".

Wait - how did Google jump from "We have been the subject of an attack" to "We will no longer censor search results in China?". I think I know.

When I visited Bejing in 2007, a employee told me that China had been particularly interested in Google because it represented an opportunity for Chinese workers to gain intellectual capital. Many Western companies are interested only in cheap Chinese labor, and seek to export manufacturing jobs, not jobs that will result in the gain of truly valuable skills for the Chinese.

So represents an opportunity for a mutually beneficial alliance. Google gets access to the (big and quickly growing) Chinese market, and China gets skilled knowledge workers. The explicit condition for this alliance was that would censor its search results to comply with Chinese authorities' standards. And Google has received a lot of criticism for that.

Google's Code of Conduct states "Our reputation as a company that our users can trust is our most valuable asset, and it is up to all of us to make sure that we continually earn that trust. All of our communications and other interactions with our users should increase their trust in us." That's not idealism, it's a practical understanding Google's core business model.

Google is the world's most popular search engine because a majority of users believe that a Google search will provide them with the best information that exists on the Web. Not "approved" information. Not information paid for by the highest bidder. Google quickly rose to dominance because it provided better search results than its competitors - remember Altavista? Unless Google users trust that they are receiving unfiltered, accurate results every time they do a search, they will use another search engine.

So Google's business proposition to its users is this: A Google search on any subject will provide you with the most accurate, most reliable information that exists on the Web. Censoring results in any market compromises this proposition. Because if Google is willing to monkey with search results in China for business reasons, what might it be doing in the rest of the world?

The Chinese government agreed to allow Google deep access to the Chinese Web in exchange for Google sharing its intellectual property with its Chinese employees and censoring search results according to authorities' dictates. The implicit quid pro quo in this arrangement was that Google could decide what intellectual property to share and, with the exception of censorship at, that China would allow Google to do the rest of its business as it always has.

Google has apparently concluded that a cyberattack focused on gaining information about advocates for Chinese human rights is likely to come from the Chinese government itself. Additionally, these attackers stole Google intellectual property. If the Chinese government is behind these attacks, it has violated the spoken and unspoken terms of its agreement with Google.

This is a calculated business opportunity for Google. It can now go to the Chinese government and say "You messed up, and we caught you. We won't do business with any entity that has so little respect for our intellectual property and the privacy of our users. Now, about those censored search results..."

Censoring search results in China brings into question every Google search result around the world. So Google has decided to leverage its knowledge about the origin of these attacks - and Google's value to the Chinese government - to remove a terrific public relations liability, satisfy a matter of conscience for many of its employees, and above all restore its basic business proposition to all of its users.

It is not that there are no good people at Google, or that "doing the right thing" didn't factor into this decision. Far from it. Google's challenge to the Chinese government is opportunistic, yes. But it is neither an act of altruism nor a cynical ploy to scuttle a failing business unit while disguising it as a humanitarian gesture. Above all, this is a business decision - and a very good one.  [ 01.26.10 ]


Hi Rebecca,

There is also the argument that much of google's business model relies on users trusting them w/ storing and handling their personal and very valuable data (email, docs, sales information via adwords, etc). If people worry that by using google they are also sharing their data with the chinese government and other intelligence organizations, usage of core google services could collapse.

If businesses stop being comfortable with google having very private data about operations, google's business could collapse.

NB I'm not the first to make this argument, but I can't find where I saw it first made this morning.


This announcement must have been under consideration for months and months, so it is hard to believe that it was done because a tiny number of email accounts had been compromised.

The fact that Hillary Clinton pitched in also suggests major geo-political and business considerations / co-ordination lay at the heart of this announcement.

The morality... not doing evilness... of agreeing to censor search terms and comply with other terms and conditions issued by the authoritarian Chinese government has always been dubious and a stain on Google's own standards.

My assessment is that Google knows it is likely to be forced out of China sooner or later and has decided to jump, in an advantageous fashion, before it is pushed.



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