I’ve been critical of Google’s decision to operate a censored search engine in China. Since then, there have been three important contributions to the debate, which I think are worthy of a reply, as they are all based on a false premise.

, Google’s Senior Policy Counsel, posted this explanation of their decision.  He says that this was a difficult judgement, but that Google wanted to

provide the greatest access to information to the greatest number of people

and, crucially, that

our search results clearly compromises our mission. Failing to offer
Google search at all to a fifth of the world’s population, however,
does so far more severely.

Second, my Dad, Brian Barder, posted this comment which argues for constructive engagement:

The best policy for dealing with authoritarian states which impose
censorship and other illiberal restrictions on their citizens is almost
always to encourage them to open up by maximising their contacts with
the outside world.

Finally, this debate was picked up by MatGB, who quotes my father’s argument and adds:

The more people in China are exposed to the rest of the world, the more likely that change will come

The premise which underlies all three of these arguments is that the result of Google’s decision to establish their google.cn service is to provide citizens of China with more access to information than they would have had otherwise, albeit censored according to rules set by the Chinese Government.  Then, it is argued, the benefit to the Chinese people of the increased information might justify the collaboration with Chinese censorship that is required, because this greater openness encourages China to open up and maximise contacts with the outside world.  Some contact, even if constrained, is better than none.

But the premise is false.  The result of Google’s decision is not an increase in the amount of search information available in China. From inside China, it used to be possible to access the main Google search engine in Chinese at http://www.google.com/ig?hl=zh-CN  It is true that some of those searches were blocked by the Great Firewall of China, and the user received an error if they searched on "Tianamen Square".  Most searches were not blocked.  Now that google.cn has been established, anyone trying to access google.com from a Chinese IP address is redirected to the censored search engine.   So the effect of Google’s decision to establish google.cn has not been to increase the amount of information available to the Chinese people; it is merely that Google now does the work of the Chinese government by censoring the searches according to the same rules.

It is therefore a barefaced lie for Andrew McLaughlin to claim that the alternative to establishing google.cn was "Failing to offer
Google search at all to a fifth of the world’s population"
.  As he  knows, there was an alternative in place, namely a Chinese language search on Google’s US servers, sometimes filtered by the Chinese Government. 

If it were true that the censored google.cn search engine provides more information than the old google.com searches as seen through the Great Firewall, then Google might be able to defend the justification that this is a form of constructive engagement.  Even then, there would be a balancing act required to judge between the good of somewhat better access to search results against the harm of collaborating with Chinese censorship.  But google.cn does not provide search to people who were otherwise denied it; it just makes the experience of having your internet searches censored a bit more slick and less obvious.

Google’s decision was not motivated by the hope that it would make China more open, because it won’t.  It was a purely commercial decision, based on Google’s desire to curry favour with the Chinese authorities, the need to recruit China’s talented and cheap engineers in the future, and  the fear that they will lag behind other, less principled companies in building market share in China unless they begin to build their brand and market share today. 

What could Google have done instead?  They could have supported and promoted anonymous web proxies outside China, such as Tor, so that users in China could have had uncensored search results.

I agree with Andrew Shieh at Stanford, that if Google is to continue to censor search results on behalf of the Chinese Government, and if their goal is more openness, then they should take the following steps:

  1. The minimum that Google must do is to show the "Local regulations prevent us from showing all the results" disclaimer on the top
    of the search results, rather than hiding it away on the bottom.
    Everyone who is receiving censored search results deserves to know that
    the results are tainted.
  2. In addition to the disclaimer, Google.cn could promote anonymous web browsing proxies such as Tor, so users in China can view the uncensored web rather than the filtered and often deceptive results that Google.cn displays.
  3. Google
    could further expand the disclaimer, by describing precisely what
    criteria are used to remove sites from the Google.cn search listings.
    If Google is filtering sites based on government regulations, it
    shouldn’t be afraid to show us the criteria it is using. I’d personally
    like to see a list of sites that government regulations are forcing
    Google to remove; it would be far more interesting than Wikipedia’s list of terms blocked by search engines in China.

  4. Google
    should continue to allow users in China to access the Google.com site,
    rather than forcing China IP addresses to be redirected to Google.cn.

Of course, they won’t do any of these, because despite the fine intentions attributed to them by my father and MatGB, and despite their own protestations, their goal is not to open China to more information, it is to build a closer relationship with the Chinese authorities to secure the future of their business there.

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4 Responses to Google’s misleading justification

  • For the record, I’m not accrediting Google with fine intentions, for them it’s business.  I’m simply stating that it’s better they’re there than not at all, and from what I’ve heard the .com/cn site was regularly blocked or slowed down so badly the service was untenable. Google has major problems as a company, especially surrounding privacy of personal data and record keeping thereof.  I use them anyway (cost/benefit analysis, the service outweighs the drawbacks), but many don’t.  I just think if you’re going to slam them, do it over real issues of serious concern, not ones where they’re a grey hat working next to a bunch of black hats (Yahoo and MSN dont’ announce the censor results, and do turn data over to Chinese authorites when asked, resulting in at least one arrest that I know of).Alternately, support the set up of a new competitor; I believe the EU is doing so already… 

  • You don’t just miss out on information from independent / dissident sources, you get an unbalanced skew of hits to the officially sanctioned versions of reality.  Still, it’s an ill wind, I’ve been discovering lots of interesting new search engines, clusterers, etc.   Quaero seems to be only at Working Group stage, but there are a lot of others out there to sample like Clusty, IBoogie, Widow, Gigablast, etc.

  • Sorry, meant to say "misleading" not the tautologous "unbalanced".

  • Scroogle?  Use the big two without the adverts &c…

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