Google’s philosophy tested

Google has agreed to create a censored version of its search engine for China:

Initially, Google’s Chinese service will be limited to searching Web
pages and images. The company also will provide local search results
and a special edition of its news service that will be confined to
government-sanctioned media.

Now is a good time to re-read Google’s page about its mission, Our Philosophy.  This is where Google originally claimed "you can make money without doing evil", a thought which was later echoed in Google’s IPO documents. 

Here is some of what they say there:

4. Democracy on the web works.

6. You can make money without doing evil.
Google is a business. The revenue the
company generates is derived from offering its search
technology
to companies and from the sale of advertising displayed
on Google and on other sites across the web. However, you may
have never seen an ad on Google. That’s because Google does
not allow ads to be displayed on our results pages unless they’re
relevant to the results page on which they’re shown. So, only
certain searches produce sponsored links above or to the right
of the results. Google firmly believes that ads can provide
useful information if, and only if, they are relevant to what
you wish to find….

8. The need for information crosses all borders.
Though Google is headquartered in California, our mission is to facilitate access to information for the entire world, so we have offices around the globe. To that end we maintain dozens of Internet domains and serve more than half of our results to users living outside the United States. …

10. Great just isn’t good enough.
… Google’s point of distinction however, is anticipating needs not yet articulated by our global audience, then meeting them with products and services that set new standards. This constant dissatisfaction with the way things are is ultimately the driving force behind the world’s best search engine.

Just last month, Eric Schmidt and Hal Varian said this:

Don’t be evil. Much has been written about
Google’s slogan, but we really try to live by it, particularly in the
ranks of management. As in every organization, people are passionate
about their views. But nobody throws chairs at Google, unlike
management practices used at some other well-known technology
companies. We foster to create an atmosphere of tolerance and respect,
not a company full of yes men.

I now notice that the corporate philosophy illustrates "don’t be evil" with the example that advertisements should be unobtrusive; and Schmidt and Varian interpreted it to mean that management should not throw chairs.  Google never actually said they would not cut a deal with an undemocratic regime to deny information and access to news to hundreds of millions of repressed people. But that was the kind of thing that "don’t be evil" implied to me.

I have some sympathy with Google’s dilemma – they are, after all, a shareholder-owned company, not a branch of Reporters sans frontières.  But companies that say one thing and do another eventually get themselves into trouble. 

Google was once the underdog; a quirky startup, doing one thing (search) really well: and quickly without all those annoying ads.  We got cool free gizmos, like Google Earth and webmail with big storage.  And it seemed to have a corporate philosophy that hackers and the internet generation could relate to.  Today Google seems a lot more like Microsoft, AOL or any other large corporation.  It buys companies to get their technology (what exactly has Google invented, since PageRank?).  It introduces Digital Rights Management systems for video. And now it cuts deals with the Chinese government to expand its market, instead of standing up for uncensored access to the internet.

I am reminded of the closing paragraphs of George Orwell’s Animal Farm:

But as the animals outside gazed at the scene, it seemed to them that
some strange thing was happening. What was it that had altered in the
faces of the pigs? Clover’s old dim eyes flitted from one face to
another. Some of them had five chins, some had four, some had three.
But what was it that seemed to be melting and changing? Then, the
applause having come to an end, the company took up their cards and
continued the game that had been interrupted, and the animals crept
silently away.  … Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they
were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the
pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to
pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say
which was which.

6 thoughts on “Google’s philosophy tested”

  1. Okay what would you like, not give the Chinese access to Google?  The Chinese government won’t care and the people won’t know.  At least access to Google in some form (note that Google will mention when results are censored) will promote a more open society than what it’s now.Also this restriction of the Chinese government only applies to the Google server run in CHina. So the Chinese people can still get past the restriction by accessing the Google.com server in the US.

  2. Hugo, I would’ve thought that the Chinese government would care.  Denying them google would mean that China has to resort to worse search engines, and presumably better search engines have /some/ benefit otherwise we wouldn’t be using them in the first place.  Secondly, I really can’t imagine that the Chinese government will go to the effort of censoring tonnes and tonnes of sites with certain types of content and fail to also censor any search engines that don’t comply with their rules. Alex

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  4. Owen, afraid I disagree completely; just posted a bt on it, then came to this tab to read the Oaten comments. From what I just put up: "Every time Google.cn tells its users that they’re being censored by the govt, the odds of change from within increase."  I truly believe both that Google had no real choice and that by displaying the results skipped bit they’re actually doing good; the other search engines in the market aren’t doing that. They’ve also got a direct link to their Chinese langage .com, which isn’t censored.  Works for me.

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